The Conservative candidate for the upcoming Tiverton and Honiton by-election has been ordered not to speak to the media by senior party officials because they fear she will be asked about partygate, insiders say.
Parish councillor Helen Hurford has been selected to fight the seat after former Tory MP Neil Parish resigned following revelations that he had twice watched pornography in parliament.
But the former headteacher is said to have been told not to speak to press – because CCHQ think she will struggle to deal with questions about Boris Johnson’s lockdown lawbreaking.
One local Tory says that anger about Downing Street shindogs is now so widespread in the rural Devon constituency that it has been decided Ms Hurford’s best chance of victory is to remain largely silent and hope the party’s current 24,000 majority carries her to victory.
Strategists are said to have spent time workshopping a response to difficult questions but even the favoured option – to suggest the prime minister got things wrong but it is time to move on – is considered likely to antagonise voters in an area where integrity is expected to come as standard.
The result is that Ms Hurford has been all but invisible since being selected as the Tories’ candidate on Monday. Requests to speak to her by The Independent went firstly unanswered and were then declined with no reason given.
The order for silence is said to have even been extended to local Conservative councillors who have been informally told not to discuss the by-election with media.
Asked in a WhatsApp message if such an instruction had been given, one councillor Colin Slade replied: “I couldn’t possibly comment!”
Another, who asked not to be named, added that members had been told they should “button up”.
Responding to the revelations, a source with the Lib Dems, who are considered the main challengers here, said: “It’s sad that Tory bosses have now effectively gagged their candidate. How can voters trust her to speak up for them if she isn’t even allowed to speak?”
It all comes after Sir Roger Gale, the MP for North Thanet, said Ms Hurford had been chosen as a “electoral sacrifice” amid growing fears the Tories could lose the contest.
“I asked in the tea room this morning if we had actually selected an electoral sacrifice to fight…and I’m told that we have,” he told BBC News on Wednesday.
Yet how well the tactic of eschewing scrutiny will work is yet to be seen.
While it worked in Hartlepool, it proved a disaster in Batley and Spen and North Shropshire where the Tories lost despite being favourites.
The Conservatives have been approached for comment.
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