North Shropshire by-election: Tory candidate ‘told not to speak to media because he knows little about area’

Neil Shastri-Hurst has been parachuted in from Birmingham and is ‘essentially hiding away’

Colin Drury
Market Drayton
Thursday 09 December 2021 18:01 GMT
<p>Conservative Party insists the claims are ‘absolute rubbish’ </p>

Conservative Party insists the claims are ‘absolute rubbish’

Senior Conservative Party officials have ordered the party’s North Shropshire by-election candidate not to speak to media amid concerns he knows so little about the area, insiders say.

Birmingham barrister Neil Shastri-Hurst has been parachuted in to fight the safe seat after its previous MP Owen Paterson resigned amid a sleaze scandal.

But local party members reckon the new man has so little understanding of the rural issues faced in the sprawling agricultural constituency that he has been told to avoid press interviews for fear he will damage his own campaign.

He has done almost no media appearances since he was selected as the Tories’ candidate on 13 November. Requests to speak him have been ignored by both Dr Shastri-Hurst himself and Matthew Follows, the party’s regional press officer for the West Midlands.

“He’s a nice bloke and will no doubt be a quick learner if he’s elected but it’s embarrassing that a Tory in North Shropshire is essentially hiding away,” one local party member told The Independent.

“They’re not letting him speak because they know that any journalist worth their salt would expose his lack of understanding within about three questions.”

The revelation comes amid growing consternation among regional Tories that the lawyer was selected in the first place.

Mark Whittle, the Conservative deputy mayor of Market Drayton, has quit the party in protest, while campaigners said Dr Shastri-Hurst’s unfamiliarity with the area was being repeatedly brought up on the doorstep by voters feeling taken for granted.

Although he has taken part in a number of hustings, some Tories fear his soundbites have appeared too generalised to impress.

He is also said to have appeared nervous around animals at a livestock market, while his early campaign calls to reopen the long-closed Gobowen to Oswestry railway line have suggested a fundamental lack of knowledge about the constituency’s geography. The A5 bypass now runs across the old line meaning that reopening the two-mile stretch of line would require a tunnel costing hundreds of millions of pounds.

“I took him around Market Drayton a couple of days after he was selected and he knew absolutely zilch about the area,” said Mr Whittle. “In a city, I’m sure he’d be a fine MP but, here in the sticks, as you’d call it, he hasn’t a clue.”

Ben Wood, the Labour candidate from Oswestry, said: “If the Conservative Party are trying to impose a candidate with no real local connection, they should at least have the decency not to lock him up for the duration of the campaign. Yet again, this is the Tories taking the people of North Shropshire for granted.”

It is not the first time the party has stopped by-election candidates speaking to the media. In both the Hartlepool and Batley and Spen by-elections this year, they used a similar playbook.

In Hartlepool, the tactic worked with Jill Mortimer romping to victory. In Batley and Spen, it did not. Despite being expected to take the seat from Labour, Ryan Stephenson lost out to Kim Leadbeater.

Dr Shastri-Hurst – a trained surgeon – did not respond to request for comment.

Mr Follows called the claims “absolute rubbish” and added: “He is doing multiple election hustings, including one organised by the BBC, and he is out speaking to people in North Shropshire every day.”

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