Downing Street believed the Tories had their dream candidate when Afzal Amin won the nomination to fight Dudley North in a corner of the West Midlands that symbolises the party’s troubled history on race relations.
The Sandhurst-trained former army captain, who served as chairman of the Armed Forces Muslim Association, would show voters how the Conservative party had been transformed in a part of Britain once a byword for Tory racism.
Amin went to school in Smethwick, scene of a notorious slogan in the 1964 general election for the winning Tory candidate Peter Griffiths which said: “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.”
Enoch Powell was Tory MP for the nearby seat of Wolverhampton South West at the time of his infamous “rivers of blood” speech in 1968. The speech came back to haunt the Tories in 2007 when the party was forced to deselect Nigel Hastilow as its candidate in Halesowen and Rowley Regis, which neighbours Dudley North, after he declared that Powell had been “right”.
Conservative campaign headquarters had hoped to bury those memories for good after Amin was selected to fight Dudley North, which is sixth on the party’s target list of Labour-held marginal seats. Opinion polls, in which Labour and the Tories periodically swap small leads, suggest it would have been a tall order for Amin to overturn the Labour majority of 649 clocked up in 2010 by Ian Austin. But the Tories hoped that placing such a high-profile candidate would, at the very least, show they were serious about ensuring the party became more diverse.
Conservative hopes lie in tatters. Party sources indicated that the secret recordings of Amin’s discussions, published by the Mail on Sunday, with the English Defence League are so damning that he is on course to be expelled from the party. The Tories fear they may have a fatal setback in their attempts to win Dudley North, which is the sort of seat David Cameron needs to win if he is to secure an overall parliamentary majority.
The behaviour of Amin is likely to trigger a rethink at campaign headquarters about scrutiny of the candidate for a seat central to the 40/40 campaign, which focuses millions of pounds on the 40 most marginal seats held by the Tories and the 40 most marginal seats it hopes to gain.
But it is difficult to draw wider lessons for the Conservative party from the secret recordings which seem to show an individual candidate vastly over-reaching himself. Tory sources suggested he had a rather inflated – and wholly unrealistic – view of his status as a parliamentary candidate when he explained his decision to negotiate with the EDL by way of reference to his service in Afghanistan.
In a statement issued in response to the Mail on Sunday report, Amin said: “Using my experience as a strategist in Afghanistan negotiating between pro-Taliban militias and the US military, I decided to use this experience to increase community cohesion here in my own country between the EDL and Muslim communities.” A Tory source dismissed this statement, telling the BBC: “Dudley isn’t Kandahar.”
Within the recordings, however, is an exchange that should give pause for thought. Amin appeared to tell the former EDL leader Tommy Robinson over a Pizza Express meal last Thursday that he would be prepared to pay for canvassers because he needs “two white working class lads” to tell voters that, if they support the army, they should vote for him.
He reportedly told Robinson: “I’ll put it to you bluntly. I need two white working class lads to go round those area to say to people: ‘You support the Army, if you support the troops then vote for this guy’. That’s what I need.”
Critics lining up to tear strips off Amin might like to bear in mind that he appeared to feel nervous about his ability, as a Muslim former army officer, to appeal to white working class voters in a seat where Ukip is making inroads. Perhaps race relations in the West Midlands have not advanced as quickly as mainstream parties had hoped.
This article was written by Nicholas Watt Chief political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Sunday 22nd March 2015 18.21 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010