Candidates set out their stalls before town goes to the polls

Arranged by Churches for Tunbridge Wells and held at the Baptist Church, Greg Clark [Con], Ben Chapelard [Lib Dem], Antonio Weiss [Labour], Chris Camp [Independent] and

Nigel Peacock [Independent] were presented with questions from residents in the constituency.

Around 300 people attended the evening event last Wednesday [December 4].

The candidates discussed various issues, including social care and the current climate emergency, but it was Brexit that dominated the agenda.

Resident, Helen Waters, asked the candidates: “How will you ensure that no deal is taken off the table, when there is insufficient time to negotiate a meaningful trade deal before the end of the 12 month transition period?”

The question was aimed primarily at former MP Greg Clark whose party leader, current PM Boris Johnson, wants to push through his ‘oven ready’ deal and complete Britain’s withdrawal of the EU by the end of 2020.

Mr Clark, who made headlines when he lost the party whip for defying Boris Johnson over No Deal, said: “I campaigned for Remain and I said doing that it is important whatever the outcome [of the referendum] it should be implemented.”

He continued: “It has been too long. It has been three-and-a-half years, but I think we have finally got to the point in which we have an agreement that has been agreed by 27 EU member states and supported by big business organisations.”

His answer caused disquiet among Remain supporting audience members who shouted: ‘you have not answered the question!’

Lib Dem candidate Ben Chapelard, whose party wants to revoke Article 50 suggested that the 17.4million people who voted for Brexit ‘no longer exist’.

“I have found hundreds of people in Tunbridge Wells who, if given the opportunity to vote in a referendum again, would switch to remain,” he said.

While Antonio Weiss, the Labour candidate whose party wants a ‘people’s vote’ on a new deal brokered by Jeremy Corbyn, said voting for Labour ‘was the best chance to stop Brexit’.

“No deal is back on the table. The Labour party is very clear that no deal would not be an option.”

He continued: “You may not like Mr Corbyn, you may not like me very much, but the best chance to stop Brexit is through a Labour government.”

Independent Chris Camp, a self-confessed ‘hard Brexiteer’ told the audience he quit the Conservative party because he was ‘angry’ over Brexit, and that Boris Johnson’s deal was a bad deal.

He said: “It is never wrong to walk away from a bad deal and this deal is nearly as bad as Theresa May’s deal.”

Independent Nigel Peacock, who also voted Leave in 2016, added that the referendum was ‘divisive’ locally and ballots should have been counted centrally not within borough and district boundaries.

How they measured up – political sketch

WHILE voters get to meet respective candidates individually on their doorstep, hustings tend to provide the only chance constituents get to see the parliamentary hopefuls side by side, and it can prove to be very insightful.

For Greg Clark, an old hand at electioneering, he has for once found himself on the back foot.

The former Business Secretary has been treading a tightrope over Brexit, attempting to appease Remain supporting Conservatives, as well as make peace with the Brexiters in his local party – who wanted to oust him earlier on in the year after he rebelled over No Deal.

In this, he may have succeeded, partially, but when asked how he could prevent a No Deal if things do not go Boris Johnson’s way, Mr Clark attempted to skirt around the issue.

It is a question he simply cannot answer. Mr Clark’s days as a rebel are now surely over, as the price to regain the party whip was to sign up to Boris Johnson’s deal and Boris Johnson’s timetable, no matter how that turns out, and the town’s Remainers know this.

The Tunbridge Wells MP for the past 14 years is also facing competition for the first time. The Liberal Democrats have made no secret that the constituency is now one of their target seats, thanks to Brexit.

Candidate Ben Chapelard is pinning his hopes on dissatisfied Remainers switching from blue to yellow, but as his Labour rival pointed out during the hustings, the current borough councillor for St James’ ward will require a record-breaking electoral swing of 83 per cent to pip Mr Clark to the post tomorrow.

While the electoral shape of the constituency, especially around the town centre, is changing, it is doubtful there are enough disgruntled Remain voting Conservatives in the parishes willing to risk Jeremy Corbyn in Number 10 just to get their way on Brexit.

Something else surfaced during the hustings too. Ben Chapelard is clearly politicaly ambitious but when he told the audience how he campaigned to stop the Conservatives in Tunbridge Wells from switching off the CCTV, despite being ‘a liberal and against surveillance,’ he admitted he was more than happy to put aside these principals because ‘local businesses asked me’.

Whether he meant it to come out the way it did, or he was feeling the effects of campaigning, is uncertain, but confessing a willingness to ditch political principals just to appease voters is perhaps not the look he was after.

It is also doubtful this political pragmatism would, or could ever, be extended to representing the interests of the 45 per cent of Leave voters in the constituency either. Turning their back on nearly half the electorate in Tunbridge Wells is a risky election gambit for the Lib Dems – only tomorrow will we know if it has paid off.

Mr Chapelard’s ambitions also have another problem in the form of Labour’s Antonio Weiss. If elections were awarded for how politicians presented themselves at public hustings, then Mr Weiss would win the seat hands down.

The Labour candidate and Harrow councillor was measured, articulate and expressed the Labour party line while managing to sound sincere and genuine. ‘You may not like Mr Corbyn, you may not like me,’ he candidly told the room last week, before suggesting a vote for Labour was ‘the only way to stop Brexit’.

It is likely we will see Mr Weiss on the green benches of the House of Commons in the very near future. It is, however, highly unlikely it will be as the member for Tunbridge Wells.

One thing has been clear throughout Labour’s campaigning – they don’t expect to win here, and are not even trying. Most of Mr Weiss’ election swipes have been directed at the Lib Dems not the Tories. It seems for Labour, success tomorrow will be measured on whether he retains the party’s second place in Tunbridge Wells or loses out to Mr Chapelard.

As for the independents, while their intentions are admirable, it is hard to imagine either will keep their deposit, let alone beat any of the party hopefuls
With no Brexit Party candidate standing, Chris Camp is a clear protest vote for the hard Brexiters. As for Nigel Peacock, as smart and intelligent as he is, an independent candidate needs some form of previous platform to be successful (Martin Bell springs to mind), which he is surely lacking.

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