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Sarah Wollaston — GP, Conservative MP for Totnes and Chair of the Commons Health Select Committee — is the very model of an independent-minded MP who is unafraid to speak her mind and attack her own government’s policies. If only we had more MPs like her who did not blindly follow the whips’ diktats our politics would be much healthier and we would be better governed, the cry goes out. Surely it is only lunatics, party leaders and the denizens of the whips’ offices who could imagine that independentmindedness in MPs is overrated?

Wollaston owes her place in the Commons to an experiment in democracy the Conservative Party undertook in 2009. Two MPs who came out particularly badly from the parliamentary expenses scandal were Sir Anthony Steen, the Totnes MP, and Sir Peter Viggers, MP for Gosport. Viggers had charged £1,645 for a duck house and Steen had spent more than £87,000 in expenses on his constituency home. Steen made the foolish decision to go on the radio and declare that his opponents were motivated by jealousy: “I’ve got a very, very large house. Some people say it looks like Balmoral . . . it looks like Balmoral.” (It doesn’t.)

The Tories thought: how best do we decontaminate our brand in Totnes and Gosport? Why not ask the voters as a whole to pick our candidate? So, along the lines of US primaries, everyone on the electoral roll in those two constituencies was sent a postal vote to choose between the shortlisted candidates. The shortlists, unlike in American primaries, were drawn up by the party — one would not want to go too far with this democracy thing. On the Totnes shortlist, as well as two Tory local government figures, Wollaston was let through. She was a practising GP in Totnes with no previous political involvement. Those who knew her then say that her political views, when she expressed them, were the conventional left-wing platitudes common among public-sector professionals.

While there was much talk of the Conservatives rolling out open primaries to 200 seats, the experiment has not been repeated, except for the unusual circumstances of the Rochester and Strood by-election in 2014 where the sitting MP had defected to UKIP.

Since being elected, Wollaston has understandably made healthcare her big issue. Her independence — i.e., the fact that she keeps attacking government policy — has been celebrated for showing how open-minded and willing to think for herself she is. In fact, her views simply reflect the soft-left assumptions of the NHS producer class — she is trapped in her old profession’s groupthink. It is often (accurately) stated that MPs’ careers are stymied by going against the party leadership, but in Wollaston’s case it has done the opposite. Select Committee Chairs are allocated between the government and opposition parties by negotiations between the whips’ offices, but then all MPs can vote in a secret ballot for rival candidates from the one party. For Tory MPs who seek to be elected as a Select Committee chair — and to gain the platform, status and additional salary of £15,000 per year the office brings with it — it is expedient to be critical of their party leadership as it is the best way of gaining the votes of Labour and other opposition MPs in the ballot.
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Michael Mosbacher
November 25th, 2018
4:11 PM
Afraid I could say the same - the constituency of Totnes voted Leave. The Leave vote was 53.9 per cent according to House of Commons Library research. Brexit: votes by constituency

P. Morley
November 24th, 2018
9:11 AM
South Hams, of which Totnes is within, voted 53% to 47% to Remain. Get your facts right.

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