Tories scramble to find almost 200 election candidates as Gove leads exodus

The Tories are scrambling to find candidates for almost a third of constituencies after Rishi Sunak’s decision to keep many of his party’s senior figures in the dark about his decision to call a snap election.

It is understood that when Mr Sunak made his rain-sodden announcement on the steps of Downing Street on Wednesday afternoon, candidates for 191 of the 650 seats still needed to be selected.

Since then more vacancies have occurred with a number of Tory MPs announcing they will retire, bringing the total to at least 78, breaking the 1997 record of 75. This dramatically included levelling-up secretary Michael Gove and former leadership candidate Andrea Leadsom on Friday evening.

Party chiefs are desperately appealing to prospective candidates to put themselves forward for seats – many of which they are projected to lose heavily – with the Conservatives expected to still be putting up batches of adverts for constituencies into the weekend.

Rishi Sunak told journalists he was ‘pumped up’ during his whirlwind tour of the UK (PA Wire)
Rishi Sunak told journalists he was ‘pumped up’ during his whirlwind tour of the UK (PA Wire)

Political commentator Sir Anthony Seldon, a biographer of six prime ministers, said: “Surprise is always a smart tactic for a general, but it’s the enemy who should be surprised, not your own side. The Conservatives are going to have to move PDQ to fill their remaining empty seats to show that they are truly a national party.”

Former cabinet minister David Jones said he was “not sure why” the button had been pressed for an election “without close to a full slate of candidates being chosen”.

He added: “It is a huge commitment [to be a candidate]. People’s lives are literally going to be turned upside down. That is even more true for those who are being selected now. At least some will have had two years’ preparation but the ones selected now will have very little time to get ready.”

The Independent has seen a list of 93 seats advertised to pre-vetted people on the Tory potential candidates list, with at least one more batch to come at the weekend.

The party has been partly caught out by the number of retirements by MPs – including Greg Clark in Tunbridge Wells and Sir David Evennett in Bexleyheath and Crayford on Friday – as well as defections.

On the list is Dover and Deal, along with Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, the seats of defectors Natalie Elphicke and Dr Dan Poulter.

Michael Gove is quitting as an MP (PA)
Michael Gove is quitting as an MP (PA)

Others include Stratford-upon-Avon where former chancellor Nadhim Zahawi has just stepped down.

Then there are scores of safe Labour seats with no hope of a Tory victory including Sir Keir Starmer’s Holborn and St Pancras constituency.

Underlining the importance of the decisions by the Tory party before the nomination deadline of 7 June, former London minister Paul Scully said: “We have to remember that these candidate selections are not just for this election but about the shape of the party for the next decade. These are really important decisions about how the party goes forward.”

In contrast to the Tories, the opposition parties appeared to be ready for the election, despite the shock announcement by Mr Sunak.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer insisted there was ‘no way’ his party would do a deal with the SNP after the general election (Andrew Milligan/PA)
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer insisted there was ‘no way’ his party would do a deal with the SNP after the general election (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Labour was short of around 80 candidates and only around 10 in battleground seats including Durham North and Halifax. The party said all its battleground seats will be selected by 31 May, and the rest by 4 June.

The Lib Dems had selected 564 candidates before the election date announcement, including all 80 of their top targets.

Reform UK, meanwhile, had 500 candidates approved of the 630 they want to field. Richard Tice, Reform’s leader, said: “It appears we were much better organised than the Tories.”

One Conservative candidate hopeful, who has been trying to get a seat for months, said: “There was no need for this. The process has been painfully slow. It’s a real mess.”

Tory selections are now governed by “by-election rules” which means CCHQ draws up a shortlist of three potential candidates which are then sent to an emergency meeting of the constituency party.

A replacement for Theresa May in Maidenhead is set to be chosen tomorrow in a meeting chaired by pollster Lord Hayward.

Lee Anderson, former MP Ann Widdecombe, and Reform UK leader Richard Tice at the party’s election launch on Thursday (Getty Images)
Lee Anderson, former MP Ann Widdecombe, and Reform UK leader Richard Tice at the party’s election launch on Thursday (Getty Images)

Lord Hayward said he remembered being in CCHQ in 2017 when the snap election was called by Ms May and the party had to similarly scramble to fill seats..

He said: “This time the problem is not so much the number, because many of these seats are safe Labour ones. The problem is late decisions to step down in seats the party needs to hold on to.”

Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey in East Sussex on Friday (Aaron Chown/PA Wire)
Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey in East Sussex on Friday (Aaron Chown/PA Wire)

A Conservative Party spokesperson said: “The Conservative Party are standing candidates in seats across the United Kingdom, with over three-quarters of seats already selected. As we work to ensure all candidates are nominated by 7 June, local associations will be presented with a shortlist of excellent Conservative candidates.”

It is understood the party’s processes were held up by the need to readopt MPs, with boundary changes altering seats or seeing them disappear altogether in some cases.

There are claims, though, that CCHQ is pushing centrist candidates in a bid to help decide the winner of a future leadership contest and stop right-wingers such as Suella Braverman or Robert Jenrick replacing Mr Sunak after a defeat.

Confusion surrounds former Brexit minister Lord Frost who it was claimed has been blocked by being put on the “deferred candidates” list which would mean he could not apply for a seat. Mr Sunak has denied this.

Wanted: Conservative general election candidates

According to a list sent to pre-vetted prospective MPs by Tory election chiefs (and seen by The Independent), these are the first 93 seats for which the Conservatives are looking for candidates, from safer seats to no-hopers:

  • Daventry (East Midlands)

  • Leicester East (East Midlands)

  • Leicester South (East Midlands)

  • Leicester West (East Midlands)

  • Nottingham North and Kimberley (East Midlands)

  • Wellingborough and Rushden (East Midlands)

  • Basildon and Billericay (Eastern)

  • Bury St Edmunds and Stowmarket (Eastern)

  • Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Eastern)

  • Barking (London)

  • Bethnal Green and Stepney (London)

  • Dulwich and West Norwood (London)

  • East Ham (London)

  • Edmonton and Winchmore Hill (London)

  • Hackney North and Stoke Newington (London)

  • Hackney South and Shoreditch (London)

  • Holborn and St Pancras (London)

  • Hornsey and Friern Barnet (London)

  • Ilford South (London)

  • Islington North (London)

  • Islington South and Finsbury (London)

  • Lewisham East (London)

  • Lewisham North (London)

  • Lewisham West and East Dulwich (London)

  • Leyton and Wanstead (London)

  • Poplar and Limehouse (London)

  • Stratford and Bow (London)

  • Tottenham (London)

  • West Ham and Beckton (London)

  • Gateshead Central and Whickham (North East)

  • Jarrow and Gateshead East (North East)

  • Newcastle upon Tyne Central and West (North East)

  • Newcastle upon Tyne East and Wallsend (North East)

  • Newcastle upon Tyne North (North East)

  • Ashton-under-Lyne (North West)

  • Birkenhead (North West)

  • Bootle (North West)

  • Ellesmere Port and Bromborough (North West)

  • Fylde (North West)

  • Gorton and Denton (North West)

  • Knowsley (North West)

  • Leigh and Atherton (North West)

  • Liverpool Garston (North West)

  • Liverpool Riverside (North West)

  • Liverpool Walton (North West)

  • Liverpool Wavertree (North West)

  • Liverpool West Derby (North West)

  • Makerfield (North West)

  • Manchester Central (North West)

  • Manchester Rusholme (North West)

  • Oldham West, Chadderton and Royton (North West)

  • Runcorn and Helsby (North West)

  • Salford (North West)

  • St Helens North (North West)

  • St Helens South and Whiston (North West)

  • Wallasey (North West)

  • Warrington North (North West)

  • Widnes and Halewood (North West)

  • Wigan (North West)

  • Worsley and Eccles (North West)

  • Wythenshawe and Sale East (North West)

  • Brighton Pavilion (South East)

  • Dover and Deal (South East)

  • East Worthing and Shoreham (South East)

  • Reading Central (South East)

  • Slough (South East)

  • Bristol Central (South West)

  • Aberafan Maesteg (Wales)

  • Cardiff East (Wales)

  • Cardiff South and Penarth (Wales)

  • Merthyr Tydfil and Aberdare (Wales)

  • Neath and Swansea East (Wales)

  • Pontypridd (Wales)

  • Rhondda and Ogmore (Wales)

  • Birmingham Hodge Hill and Solihull North (West Midlands)

  • Smethwick (West Midlands)

  • Solihull West and Shirley (West Midlands)

  • Stratford-on-Avon (West Midlands)

  • Barnsley North (Yorkshire and the Humber)

  • Barnsley South (Yorkshire and the Humber)

  • Bradford East (Yorkshire and the Humber)

  • Doncaster Central (Yorkshire and the Humber)

  • Kingston upon Hull East (Yorkshire and the Humber)

  • Kingston upon Hull North and Cottingham (Yorkshire and the Humber)

  • Leeds Central and Headingley (Yorkshire and the Humber)

  • Leeds South (Yorkshire and the Humber)

  • Normanton and Hemsworth (Yorkshire and the Humber)

  • Rawmarsh and Conisbrough (Yorkshire and the Humber)

  • Rotherham (Yorkshire and the Humber)

  • Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough (Yorkshire and the Humber)

  • Sheffield Central (Yorkshire and the Humber)

  • Sheffield Heeley (Yorkshire and the Humber)

  • Sheffield South East (Yorkshire and the Humber)