By: Pramod Thomas
SENIOR Tory officials have ordered the party’s North Shropshire by-election candidate not to speak to media as he knows ‘so little about the area’, reported The Independent.
Birmingham barrister Neil Shastri-Hurst is fighting the by-election in the safe seat after its previous MP Owen Paterson resigned amid a sleaze scandal.
However, local party members reckon the new man has so little understanding of the rural issues faced in the sprawling agricultural constituency. The report added that Shastri-Hurst has been told to avoid press interviews for fear he will damage his own campaign.
He has done almost no media appearances since he was selected as the Tories’ candidate on 13 November. The election will take place next Thursday (16).
The Independent report added that requests to speak to him have been ignored by both Dr Shastri-Hurst himself and Matthew Follows, the party’s regional press officer for the West Midlands.
“He’s a nice bloke and will no doubt be a quick learner if he’s elected but it’s embarrassing that a Tory in North Shropshire is essentially hiding away,” one local party member was quoted as saying by The Independent.
“They’re not letting him speak because they know that any journalist worth their salt would expose his lack of understanding within about three questions.”
The revelation comes amid growing consternation among regional Tories that the lawyer was selected in the first place.
Mark Whittle, the Conservative deputy mayor of Market Drayton, has quit the party in protest, while campaigners said Dr Shastri-Hurst’s unfamiliarity with the area was being repeatedly brought up on the doorstep by voters feeling taken for granted.
Although he has taken part in a number of hustings, some Tories fear his soundbites have appeared too generalised to impress, the report added.
He is also said to have appeared nervous around animals at a livestock market, while his early campaign calls to reopen the long-closed Gobowen to Oswestry railway line have suggested a fundamental lack of knowledge about the constituency’s geography.
The A5 bypass now runs across the old line meaning that reopening the two-mile stretch of line would require a tunnel costing hundreds of millions of pounds.
“I took him around Market Drayton a couple of days after he was selected and he knew absolutely zilch about the area. In a city, I’m sure he’d be a fine MP but, here in the sticks, as you’d call it, he hasn’t a clue,” Whittle told The Independent.
Ben Wood, the Labour candidate from Oswestry, told the newspaper: “If the Conservative Party are trying to impose a candidate with no real local connection, they should at least have the decency not to lock him up for the duration of the campaign. Yet again, this is the Tories taking the people of North Shropshire for granted.”
The report pointed out that it is not the first time Tories stopped by-election candidates speaking to the media. In both the Hartlepool and Batley and Spen by-elections this year, they used a similar playbook.
In Hartlepool, the tactic worked, but in Batley and Spen, it did not.
However, Follows called the claims “absolute rubbish”. “He is doing multiple election hustings, including one organised by the BBC, and he is out speaking to people in North Shropshire every day,” he told The Independent.