THE Conservatives’ general election campaign in Christchurch has been hit by an escalating war of words after the local party’s deputy chairman resigned in a spat with candidate Sir Chris Chope.
Rhys Gadsby announced on Tuesday night that he had stepped down from the senior position at Christchurch and East Dorset Conservative Association, having only been elected in March.
He has been critical of veteran MP Sir Chris Chope (72) over his principle of blocking popular private members’ bills in parliament – including a bid to ban taking photos up women’s skirts, which was eventually made law with government support.
Sir Chris was adopted as the party’s candidate by the membership last week, despite failing to gain the backing of the executive committee. He has held the seat since 1997 and took it with nearly 70% of the vote in 2017.
Mr Gadsby tweeted: “I look forward to working with other Conservative candidates throughout Dorset over the coming weeks, but to continue in my current position would be ironic of me.”
When the A&T told Sir Chris, he fired back: “Frankly it will not make any difference not having the support of Rhys because he has done nothing at all politically in Christchurch since he was elected as deputy chair.
“We would not have known he existed. To be quite blunt about it, instead of having a drone in position it would be better to have someone who wants to do the job.”
Sir Chris claimed association chair Lisle Smith had asked Mr Gadsby to stand down for his failure to join in the local campaign.
He also suggested internal critics wanted his job and had not forgiven him for opposing the merger of Christchurch into the new BCP Council.
Mrs Smith did not respond to the A&T but Mr Gadsby hit back later on Twitter saying: “What nasty comments Sir Chris has to say about me.
“Was he out knocking doors with us during the local election campaign? No, ‘we would not have known he existed’. How cowardly.”
Sir Chris said he was campaigning to loosen planning rules that he said were blocking major housing and industrial developments in Christchurch, and he claimed his record included persuading the Royal Bournemouth Hospital not to charge student nurses for parking.
He added: “I am the only candidate promising to deliver Brexit. All the other candidates are against it, on the back of nearly 60% who voted to leave in the referendum. We need to get it out of the way so we can concentrate on domestic priorities such as public services.”
Labour, which came a distant second in Christchurch in 2017, kicked off its campaign with candidate Andrew Dunne canvassing residents in the town centre on Saturday.
Mr Dunne said: “I was surprised about the real angry sentiment towards our incumbent Chris Chope, and there is a real depth of feeling here that he has brought shame on our constituency and really let us all down with his blocking of the ‘upskirting’ and female genital mutilation (FGM) bills.”
He said the GP waiting times, service cuts and affordable housing had been topics of high priority.
As well as other rivals from the Liberal Democrats and Greens, Sir Chis is facing extra opposition from local artist Lorna Rees who, in protest against his “safe seat”, has placed 28 chairs around the constituency for each day of the campaign.
She has previously used underpants to protest against Sir Chris for blocking private members’ bills including greater protection against child FGM.
Despite one near the castle being vandalised, Ms Rees – the self-styled chair of Christchurch Chairs Against Chope – said: “We don’t think Chope should be sitting pretty come 12th December.
“Many people, even those who have voted for and campaigned for the Conservative party all their lives, find it impossible to support him.”
New Forest West
Sir Desmond Swayne, who is standing for New Forest West, has been spending some of his time on the campaign trail in Southampton supporting fellow Tory Royston Smith who holds the Southampton Itchen seat by just 31 votes.
Sir Desmond said small firms are the “backbone of the New Forest’s economy” and would be boosted by Conservatives’ business policies of increasing the employment allowance by up to £1,000, the R&D tax credit rate from 12% to 13%, and structures and buildings allowance from 2% to 3%.
It has not all been plain-sailing on the doorsteps, however – Sir Desmond posted on Twitter a photo of his bloodied knuckle with the comment: “A letter box can be an offensive weapon.”
Lib Dem rival Jack Davies backed his own party’s business policies, which include scrapping business rates and replacing them with a landowner levy, which he said would cut traders’ taxes by 15% in the New Forest.
He said: “The Liberal Democrats will shift the tax burden from tenants to landlords, so we can breathe new life back into our high streets. We will stop Brexit and build a brighter future, giving local businesses the certainty and support they need to thrive.”
Fox hunting has also been an election issue with Labour promising £4.5m in an animal welfare package, including prosecuting more animal crimes. The Tories are reported to be planning to drop a commitment to a free vote on fox hunting.
New Forest East
The only New Forest or Christchurch candidate not from a Westminster party is Andrew Knight of the Animal Welfare Party, who is standing in New Forest East. He is the professor of animal welfare and ethics at the University of Winchester.
The election has prompted Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust to publish its own manifesto urging candidates to “put nature first” with natural climate change solutions, legally binding targets, payments for farmers to restore landscapes, and a marine environment strategy.
The contest in East Meon may affect next year’s race to be Hampshire’s police and crime commissioner as it is being contested for the Tories by Flick Drummond who was chosen earlier this year to be the party’s PCC candidate after the current office-holder, Michael Lane, was deselected.
Candidates in New Forest West: Nick Bubb (Green), Jack Davies (Liberal Democrats), Jo Graham (Labour), Sir Desmond Swayne (Conservative).
New Forest East: Julie Hope (Labour), Bob Johnston (Liberal Democrat), Nicola Jolly (Green), Andrew Knight (Animal Welfare Party), Julian Lewis (Conservative).
Christchurch: Sir Chris Chope (Conservative), Mike Cox (Liberal Democrat), Andrew Dunne (Labour), Chris Rigby (Green).
Applications for postal votes must be submitted to the relevant local authority no later than 5pm on Tuesday 26th November.
Residents not already on the electoral register must add their names by midnight on Tuesday 26th November to be able to vote. Visit www.gov.uk/register-to-vote.