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Turnip Taliban bid to unseat Liz Truss

Exclusive: Tory rebel and ex-army officer who quit party over her selection as MP set to challenge Ms Truss – as he resigns as deputy lieutenant of Norfolk to mount challenge

Simon Walters
Saturday 06 January 2024 14:06 GMT
What went wrong for Liz Truss?

Former prime minister Liz Truss faces an attempt to oust her as a Norfolk MP by one of a group of dissident Tories known as the Turnip Taliban.

Lawyer and ex-army officer James Bagge is planning to stand against Ms Truss in the forthcoming general election as an independent candidate.

He is today announcing a series of public meetings to win backing for his challenge, having already held several meetings to canvass support for his plan, in addition to a social media campaign.

If Mr Bagge defeated Ms Truss it would be one of the biggest election upsets of all time.

He is among prominent Conservatives who resigned from the party in protest at her selection as its candidate for South West Norfolk in 2009 after complaints she was “foisted” on them by Tory HQ.

They argued she had no links to the area and accused party chiefs of failing to inform them she had had an affair with a married Tory MP.

Lawyer and ex-army officer James Bagge is planning to stand against Liz Truss (Garlinda Birkbeck)

It led to Ms Truss’ critics in the traditional East Anglian agricultural constituency being labelled the Turnip Taliban.

Asked about the Turnip Taliban tag, Mr Bagge, 71, told The Independent: “It is not a label of choice. But a turnip has deeper roots than a lettuce.”

The quip is a reference to a newspaper campaign in which Ms Truss’ premiership was supposedly outlasted by a lettuce.

Mr Bagge claims Ms Truss has “put personal ambition above the interests of local people” and been a “failure” as an MP.

He and his older brother, seventh baronet Sir Jeremy Bagge, were among her most vocal critics in the 2009 deselection row.

Defeating Ms Truss will not be easy. She had a massive 26,195 majority at the 2019 election and was recently backed by her local party to stand again.

Mr Bagge stressed he wants to canvass local opinion before making a final decision, pointedly stating “because that is what Ms Truss failed to do”.

Truss was ‘foisted’ on Conservatives in South West Norfolk, her opponents claim (Getty)

But friends expect him to go ahead with his carefully planned challenge. He has resigned as deputy lieutenant of Norfolk to pursue his parliamentary ambition.

Announcing his intentions in The Independent, he said: “It was clear to many of us years ago that Ms Truss was not the right MP for this area. She appears to have put her political ambition above the interests of local people.

“I have been disappointed and unimpressed by the lack of attention she has given to the interests of the constituency over the last 14 years and by her failure to engage in a real way with the challenges which confront its constituents.”

Mr Bagge, who describes himself as Norfolk born and bred and a “mainstream, small ‘c’ conservative” said he would be a better “champion” of local interests. Unlike Ms Truss, he said, as an independent MP he would be able to spend his time in the Commons campaigning for his constituents instead of meekly obeying party whips by “filing obediently through the right (voting) lobby”.

He would “hold people in power to account and make a thorough nuisance of myself” to get a better deal for local people.

His personal and political style is in contrast to the radical Right-wing policies Ms Truss adopted as prime minister which triggered an economic crisis.

Conservative Party chair for South West Norfolk David Hills speaking to the media alongside Truss during her 2009 battle against deselection (Alamy)

Mr Bagge said he is against “quick fixes” for major national issues.

Ms Truss’ record in power was an example of an attempted political “quick fix” which required greater planning and attention, he said. “In my career in the army, law and business I have found that giving serious consideration to serious issues is the best approach.”

Mr Bagge is from one of Norfolk’s most prominent families. It owns the Elizabethan mansion Stradsett Hall in the county. His great-great grandfather was a Norfolk MP.

He has a wide-ranging public and professional CV.

He was appointed High Sheriff of Norfolk by the Queen in 2017.

He served in Northern Ireland as an army officer in the 1970s and later was an aide to Sir Mark Oliphant, governor of South Australia. Oliphant was also a nuclear physicist involved in the Manhattan Project, which developed the US atom bomb during the Second World War and was featured in the blockbuster movie Oppenheimer.

Mr Bagge qualified as a barrister, worked for the Serious Fraud Office combatting financial corruption including the giant Guinness stock market scandal in the 1980s and was head of litigation at global law firm Norton Rose. He advises Norfolk’s Citizens Advice and is involved in two local youth charities.

The 2009 deselection row over Ms Truss caused bitter divisions in the South West Norfolk Conservative Party.

David Hills, local party chairman, who backed her selection after initially opposing it, was awarded an MBE in her controversial resignation honours list last week.

If Mr Bagge unseats Ms Truss it would be a greater shock than Conservative cabinet minister Michael Portillo’s defeat by Labour political unknown Stephen Twigg in Enfield in the 1997 election.

Portillo’s humiliation, announced at 3am, came to identify the scale of the fall of a discredited and exhausted Conservative administration.

“Were you up for Portillo?” became a popular catchphrase.

If political unknown Mr Bagge defenestrates Ms Truss, it would be a similar symbol of Tory decay.

It is not the first mountainous task he has taken on in recent years. Having completed the 1,000-mile pilgrim path to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, he did it again in 2018. Starting in Norfolk, he raised £75,000 for the county’s “unpaid carers” in a 1,500-mile marathon trek across Europe.

James Bagge’s statement in full

“I have been both disappointed and unimpressed by the lack of attention our current MP has given to the interests of the constituency here in South West Norfolk over the last 14 years; and by her failure to engage in a real way with the challenges which confront its constituents.

“I will be running a series of public meetings across the region over the next three months, to gauge local appetite for my proposed candidacy as an independent MP in the forthcoming general election. I have already successfully canvassed views at my first meeting in December, which was well attended and gave me confidence that I could offer people a real commitment to resolving a significant number of local issues.

“I am seeking people’s views on their expectations of their MP, whether these are being met currently, and whether they would like to be offered an independent option at the next election.

“With the necessary level of support, I will stand as an independent for South West Norfolk and, instead of filing obediently through the right lobby, I will use my time as best suits my constituents’ interests. I will be free to speak and free to act. I will focus on matters that impact most directly on our lives, and on policies and decisions at all levels of government that affect our local Norfolk community.”

Mr Bagge’s public meetings will be advertised on his website and social media channels and are free to attend.

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