Mayor rejected by own party in secret ballot

Premier Inn Tunbridge Wells

Unprecedented move means she cannot stand as Tory candidate

THE local Conservative Association has banned the Mayor of Tunbridge Wells from standing as a Tory candidate at the next borough council elections in a move that appears to be ‘unprecedented’.

The news has been met with incredulity by rank and file Conservatives, while MP Greg Clark described her as ‘hardworking, committed and widely respected’.

Mayor Julia Soyke did not even make it through the first round of the candidate selection process to represent her ward of Speldhurst and Bidborough next May.

She has since admitted to being ‘puzzled’ by the decision.

Conservative Leader of the Council, David Jukes, who was not involved in the process, said he was ‘bitterly disappointed’ by the decision.

The fate of the town’s First Citizen, and that of other candidates, was decided by a secret ballot cast by a powerful panel of five ‘senior’ members of the local party on Friday [September 1].

Three panel members are fellow borough councillors while the other two are high ranking members of the local party.

“Quite frankly I am astonished by some of the deselection decisions that have been made”

In the wake of the news, Cllr Soyke, who has a 100 per cent attendance record at the council, said she has no idea what more she could have done to get the panel’s approval.

“I am quite puzzled by what has happened. I have supported the party by campaigning in every part of the borough and farther afield in places such as Eastbourne. I have also held a fundraiser for the association each year at my house.

“The decision is made in a secretive way and you are not even able to ask why they voted as they did. There is no appeals process,” she said.

Cllr Soyke was first elected in 2010 and was made Mayor after a cross-party vote of her peers on May 24. Her term as Mayor is expected to last a year, but this may now be in doubt as her re-election to the council was due to occur on May 3.

However, Cllr Soyke is determined to ‘see out’ her term, although she is ‘very disappointed’ her last weeks in office will not be as a councillor.

“This is a very important time for the town and I want to be on the council. I am still mulling over what to do next.”

The Mayor was not the only councillor to be deselected on Friday afternoon, when the representative of Culverden ward, Don Sloan, met the same fate.

Cllr Sloan, who was elected in 2014, said the ‘unprecedented’ decision to deselect sitting councillors who have not brought the party into disrepute was a ‘slap in the face’ to those who work hard for the local party.

“Normally sitting councillors have priority when it comes to selection, so I am not sure why loyal and active members of the association have been passed over this time, and quite frankly I am astonished by some of the deselection decisions that have been made. The committee have not made it clear what they are trying to achieve.

“A key issue at the interview was the degree of support given to the association, my own commitment has always been strong, and my fellow councillors acknowledge this,” he said.

To make matters worse, their deselection occurred at stage one of a three stage process. The panel were only vetting their suitability to throw their hat into the ring.

A list of potential candidates for each ward occurs at stage two, while stage three sees card-carrying local members vote on who they wish to run for election.

“This process is not undertaken by some secret cabal”

Cllr Sloan openly questioned the motive behind the decision.

“It is a secret ballot and they are not supposed to give any hint over who they want to vote for, but it makes you wonder what discussions went on beforehand,” he said, adding he may attempt a limited appeal.

“They say you cannot appeal the outcome, but on the process I felt once or twice there were instances of prejudice. For example, the candidate interview is supposed to last 25 minutes, I felt I was given far less time than that.”

Cllr Don Sloan

Cllr Sloan said he was keeping his ‘options open’ and will consider standing as an independent.

The Times was able to contact all three councillors who sit on the panel; Thelma Huggett, David Elliott and Alex Lewis-Grey.

All three declined to say which way they voted, citing the confidential nature of the ballot.

However, Cllr Elliott did call the result ‘upsetting’, while Cllr Huggett said she wanted to counter rumours ‘spread by another councillor’ that Cllr Soyke was deselected as she had not worked hard enough.

Cllr Lewis Grey responded to the Times by stating it is ‘none of your damn business.’

Panel members Graham Riddick, the Association Vice Chairman, and local member Jill Andrew, did not respond to request for comment.

Tunbridge Wells Conservative Party Agent, Andrew Kennedy, who oversees the running of the vote, said he would ‘not comment’ on the selection of individuals, but defended the method.

“This process is not undertaken by some secret cabal. The selection committee are voted to their roles by other members of the association in an open vote and anyone can stand.”

Who is Mayor Soyke?

Julia Soyke has dedicated her Mayoralty to supporting victims of domestic abuse and has chosen the Tunbridge Wells-based Domestic Abuse Volunteer Support Service (DAVSS) as her charity of choice for the year.

Cllr Soyke said she had attended a DAVSS course following the extreme discomfort she felt while listening to the Archers’ storyline centred on Helen and Rob Titchener – a storyline which grabbed media attention last year for its vivid depiction of domestic abuse.

She was elected to the Mayoralty after a year as Deputy Mayor and after a long period chairing the planning committee.

Her education includes a geology degree from Exeter University and post graduate studies in the USA.

Later in life she moved to Germany, where she lived for ten years, and now runs the family farm at Ashurst and is actively involved in the local community.

She has been married to her husband Peter Soyke for 50 years.

Can Cllr Soyke still be Mayor?

The deselection of Julia Soyke as a candidate to stand at the next round of local election on May 3 has caused a headache for the borough council as her Mayoralty does not end until the end of May.

Having a Mayor who is not a member of the borough council is unchartered territory, a council spokesman admitted, adding: “As this is an unusual situation we are seeking legal clarification.”


Greg ClarkTunbridge Wells MP Greg Clark comments:

“Julia is a mayor that Tunbridge Wells can be proud of – hardworking, committed and widely respected.

“I understand that there is an ongoing process to select conservative candidates for the Borough Council, for which there is strong competition, and I hope that Julia will be able to continue her excellent public service.”



The selection committee

David Elliott

The representative of Southborough North ward since 2007, Cllr Elliott is also the Chairman of the Tunbridge Wells Conservative Association – although he does not chair the selection committee. A former Mayor of Tunbridge Wells himself in 2015/16, he won admiration when he raised £5,000 for his chosen charity ellenor by auctioning off his beloved Harley Davidson motorcycle.

Mr Elliott joked at his mayor making ceremony that he had never been vetted before standing as a borough councillor for the Conservatives, adding: “I never had a formal interview. How did they know I was suitable?”

He said the deselection of Cllr Soyke was ‘upsetting’.

 Thelma Huggett

Cllr Huggett has represented Rusthall since 2015. She is a Treasurer of The League of Friends of Tunbridge Wells Hospital Treasurer of Conservative Ladies Group and is also in charge of fundraising for the Conservative Association.

She helped her constituents fight an attempt by Targetfollow to impose a ‘land tax’ on residents living on and near the common by hosting a legal advice meeting in May last year.

Cllr Huggett said ‘misinformation spread by another councillor’ that the Mayor had been deselected for not wording hard enough was false.

 Alexander Lewis-Grey

Elected to represent Culverden, the same ward as Cllr Don Sloan, in 2015, Cllr Lewis-Grey is in charge of campaigning for the local association. In his day job he is the ‘Vice President Data Capture and Reporting’ at Barclays Capital.

Cllr Lewis-Grey sits on three committees at the council; Audit and Governance, Finance and Governance Cabinet Advisory Board and the General Purposes Committee. His attendance record to date is 71 per cent. He also sits on the Southborough Town Council.

When asked about why the Mayor was deselected by the committee he sat on, Cllr Lewis Grey told the Times it was ‘none of your damn businesses.’

Jill Andrew

A director of The Enterprise Forum, an organisation which aims to “improve the quality and flow of information between the business community and the Conservative Party”, which counts many sitting MPs among its executive. Jill Andrew is not listed as a key member of the local Association.

A solicitor specialising in employment law by profession, she was a councillor for the London Borough of Bromley between 1994 and 98, and stood in Walthamstow at the 1997 General Election. Ms Andrew now holds a number of senior positions on the voluntary side of the Conservative Party.

Graham Riddick

Vice Chairman of the association, Graham Riddick has been a member of the Conservative Party for 40 years. He is not a member of the borough council. Between 1987 and 1997 Mr Riddick was MP for Colne Valley in West Yorkshire.

Mr Riddick was the subject of a Sunday Times ‘sting’ in 1994 regarding cash for questions. He agreed to engage with what he believed was a legitimate consultancy, but immediately returned a £1,000 cheque sent to him for asking a question, before it came to light it was a sting.

The Press Complaints Commission ruled the paper had failed to make clear to readers its approach to Riddick had been on the basis of a legitimate consultancy, not on the basis of a one-off payment in return for asking a question, and there was no justification for resorting to subterfuge.

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