11 Aug 2014

Is Skegness bracing itself for Neil Hamilton?

Amid all the speculation over today’s sudden resignation of the junior Foreign Office minister Mark Simmonds, there’s a more intriguing story.  Could the former Tory MP, Neil Hamilton, who is now deputy chairman of Ukip, become the next MP for Mark Simmonds’s seat, Boston and Skegness, a prime Ukip target?  And would Nigel Farage – who is no fan of Hamilton – ever agree to that?

The deputy chairman of the UK Independence Party, Neil Hamilton, speaks at the party's annual conference in central London

Mr Simmonds had already announced he plans to stand down as an MP at the next election in May, and the Boston and Skegness constituency is reckoned to be one of Ukip’s three juiciest prospects.  Ukip had five county councillors elected in the constituency last year (though two have since defected), and in the European elections this spring Ukip got 52 per cent of the vote in the borough of Boston (which covers part of the seat, more than any other area of the UK).

Neil Hamilton made an extensive visit to the constituency last month, with engagements both in the market town of Boston and the seaside resort of Skegness, and a tour of many of the rural villages. “He seemed very, very interested in local issues,” says Don Ransome, who was Ukip organiser for the East Midlands up until a few weeks ago. “I would definitely say he was interested.  He was interested in the whole area.”  When I suggested to Ransome that Hamilton was had his eye on the constituency, he said I was “probably spot on the money”.

Hamilton, who was accompanied on his visit by his wife Christine, visited the offices of the local Boston and Skegness Standard.  And he said all the kind of things one might expect of someone eyeing up a parliamentary seat.

Of Mark Simmonds, he remarked: “I am making no predictions but if I were him I would spend less time in central Africa and more time in Boston – although far be it from me to give him advice.”  and he added: “I know nothing about Mark Simmonds.  I think that’s part of the problem.  No doubt he’s perfectly worthy but there is no doubt that Boston can do better.

“I see Boston being the beacon for the whole of the UK to shine a light into the dark corners of British politics.  Instead of being the forgotten backwater, Boston deserves to be first place.  that’s what a Ukip MP would give it. Nigel Farage has been talking about an earthquake.  In reality the earthquake will take place when we get our first MP.  Boston can be that constituency.”

Hamilton “had certainly done his homework,” says Andrew Brooks, the deputy editor of the Boston Standard, who interviewed him.

Neil Hamilton wouldn’t respond when Channel 4 News asked him today whether the hoped to be Ukip’s candidate in Boston, but he did confirm he does hope to fight some seat at the election.  He will announce his plans soon, he told us.

Paul Oakden, the spokesman for Ukip in Boston and Skegness, tells me that Neil Hamilton hasn’t formally yet put his name forward, but there a couple of weeks to go before close of nominations. “Neil Hamilton’s got a great personality, a lot of charm, a lot of charisma and if he was chosen on the night I’m sure he’d do a great job for Ukip.”

The local Ukip branch in Boston and Skegness will choose its candidate on 11 September, but if they were to pick Neil Hamilton, would that be accepted by Nigel Farage and the national party?  Last year the Ukip high command upset Hamilton by excluding him from the list of potential MEPs, on the grounds that his past would become the focus of media attention and be an embarrassment to the party.

In 1994, Neil Hamilton was forced to resign as a minister after being accused of accepting cash in brown envelopes from the businessman Mohammad Al Fayed, something he’s always strenuously denied.  But in the 1997 election Hamilton was resoundingly  beaten in his Tatton constituency (the fourth safest Conservative seat in Britain) by the independent candidate Martin Bell, who got a majority of more than 11,000.  Hamilton later lost a subsequent by-election over the issue.

And Nigel Farage made no secret of his disdain for Neil Hamilton when asked at Ukip’s spring conference in Torquay about Hamilton role as campaign organiser, dismissing him merely a “backroom boy”. Farage’s comments, made at a press conference, visibly infuriated Hamilton.

A senior figure with close ties to the Ukip leadership says that Hamilton regards himself as a “dead cert to be selected” for Boston and Skegness, but that left several national Ukip officials “very worried”.  The Ukip national executive would have the power to veto Hamilton, but the former MP could probably rely on the backing of national party chairman Steve Crowther, who is “old friends” with Hamilton, I’m told.

Would, Nigel Farage try to stop Neil Hamilton once again – and indeed could he?  Some party bigwigs are agonising over how it would look if one of Ukip’s first elected MPs – maybe its very first MP – was a man who 18 years earlier had left the House of Commons in public disgrace.

Neil Hamilton is a tenacious character who is determined to restore his reputation.  And the looming scenario in Boston and Skegness could be reminiscent of 1997, when Neil Hamilton stood for re-election in Tatton with support of local Tory activists, but against the wishes of the party leadership, who wanted him to stand down.

Either way, if Hamilton is picked as candidate in Boston and Skegness, it looks set to generate Ukip a fair bit of embarrassing publicity ahead of its national conference this autumn.

And, if Ukip got only a tiny number of seats next May – but Nigel Farage missed out – it’s not too far-fetched to see Neil Hamilton ending up as leader of the Ukip parliamentary party.

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