Front: Julia Manning, Katy Lindsay, Ryan Robson
Middle: Margaret Doyle, Rory Stewart, Phillip Lee
Middle: Margaret Doyle, Rory Stewart, Phillip Lee
First of all, I have been overwhelmed over the last 24 hours by all the emails, texts, tweets and blog comments people have left. 98% of them have been very nice and almost made me feel like I am reading my own obituary!
Yesterday was a a very good one for Bracknell Conservatives. At the end of the day the Open Primary has to be judged a success. I told the selection that I believe any one of the seven candidates would be a good MP and I stick by that. It was a very strong shortlist.
I arrived at the venue at 1pm and dished out my leaflets on each chair in the auditorium. BBC South were there and wanted to do an interview but I was reluctant to do one unless the others did too. At 1.30 the room started to fill up with constituents, many of whom were very keen to have a chat before the proceedings got underway. I wasn't sure if this was really allowed so after a short time retreated to the rather spartan room which had been set aside for the candidates. Just before 2pm we were called down to draw lots in front of the audience. I drew number 7 meaning that I was last on. I didn't know whether to be pleased or not. Would they all be so punch drunk by the time I appeared that they would just want it all over with? Or would it be an advantage. The others seemed to believe I had struck lucky. But it meant that I had three and a half hours to sit there, with no contact with the outside world, until I was on.
Obviously we didn't listen to each others' performances, so I can't tell you exactly what was said but the Bracknell Blog has an extensive blogpost outlining what each candidate said and how they approached it. As we were waiting most of the others were boning up on some local issue or other or rewriting bits of their speeches. I am afraid I take the view that if you don't know it by now, you never will. So I just sat there mentally rehearsing a few lines in my head. Some went into a separate room to rehearse their speeches out loud. I kept thinking, should I be doing this too? But in the end, you have to do it your way.
We all had to do a three minute introduction, then answer questions for 20 minutes and then do a three minute wind up. The questions had all been submitted in advance and were put to each candidate. There were no spontaneous questions from the floor.
Eventually, at about 5.20pm, my turn came. I was really pleased with my opening statement. I decided to address the issue of trust head on and the reason we were all there. I was told afterwards that I was the only one who had addressed the expenses issue head on. Was this a mistake? Surely not.
We then moved on to questions. I know at the Executive Round that I was far too loquacious in my answers so I was determined to be more succinct. We covered a huge range of issues including nuclear power, working with the local councils, Europe, Heathrow, how we would split our time between Westminster and the constituency, Trident, the euro, our personal priorities and the NHS. I am sure there were others which I can't recall now.
I got a couple of rounds of applause when I mentioned I was in favour of an English Parliament and against the government's plans for a so-called paedophile register and I also made them laugh a few times.
I was really pleased at how the question session went and felt that I had given very robust and honest answers to every question. Perhaps things were going too well...
I then made a mistake. I didn't use my full three minutes at the end. I thought that the audience had probably had enough, as they had been sitting there for more than four hours. So I reiterated the point that it was up to a new MP to restore trust and expressed the hope that they would allow me to be given the chance to do that. I was told afterwards that several people had voiced the opinion that I should have used the full three minutes.
But apart from that, I genuinely think that I performed well.
We then trooped off back to the candidates room to await the verdict. Time after time, the Association chairman, Lesley Philpot, knocked on the door to deliver the terrible news to one of the candidates.
I knew my best chance was to win on the first or second ballot. When it went to four ballots and it was down to Rory Stewart, Phillip Lee and myself I had an inkling that the game was up. Why? Because I reckon I am a bit of a marmite candidate. You either love me or you hate me. I don't do well on second preferences! So I always knew that when the supporters of the other candidates had to vote again, I might not do as well. We weren't told the figures, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if I had been ahead on round 1 or 2, but gradually slipped back. I guess I'll never know.
So when Lesley came into the room for the final time and told me I was out, I wasn't in the least surprised. I'm normally quite emotional in these circumstances, but on this occasion remained completely calm. One or two of the other candidates were clearly devastated. For some reason I wasn't - not because I didn't care, or didn't want it badly enough: I did. But somehow I just knew Phillip was destined to get it. I had told quite a few people right from the start that if I didn't win, I hoped he would, and I genuinely meant it. I don't know him well, but I knew enough to know he'd be a good choice. So when Lesley came back and told him he had won I was delighted to shake his hand and wish him well. Rory took it very well. He had clearly made a huge impression and I have no doubt he will soon be selected elsewhere - maybe Penrith next weekend.
There have been a lot of comments about whether Open Primaries are working. Personally, I have absolutely no complaints about the system used in this selection. It was conducted fairly and transparently. The Association Agent, Mary Ballin, did a terrific job and I'd like to thank all the members and councillors I have met over the last three weeks for their unfailing courtesy and helpfulness.
My only doubt about the whole process would be the fact that there were seven of us in the final. It was too many and made the event far too long-winded. It would be far better in future to allow Associations to reduce the shortlist of 6 to 4 at an Executive Round. I know this issue has caused some angst in other constituencies.
So what now? Obviously I wanted to win Bracknell - I think I made that fairly clear. But anyone who expects to apply for one seat and then win it is either delusional or very lucky. Michael Howard applied for 44 before he got one. Bracknell was the first seat I had applied for in two years.
Will I apply for others, having fallen at this hurdle? You bet I will.
I didn't apply for Devizes, Gosport, Esher or Central Suffolk as the deadline was last Monday and I wanted to concentrate on Bracknell, but I'll certainly now apply for other seats as they become available. But I won't use a scattergun approach and apply for everything. It has to be the right constituency.