After months of fruitless wrangling over the televised leaders’ debates, David Cameron has been accused of dodging a less obviously risky encounter: a church debate with a doctor who is mounting a long-shot challenge for his seat in Oxfordshire.
Dr Clive Peedell, a consultant oncologist from Middlesbrough who leads the National Health Action party, has been invited to every hustings in Witney during the campaign except one – the only event attended by the prime minister. Another excluded candidate who successfully applied for a ticket, Christopher Tompson , was turned away at the door after being told that his presence “might cause some unrest”.
Cameron’s team denies exerting any influence on the event beyond security matters. But in an email to a photographer who was also barred from attending, organisers explained that they were following “instructions … from Cameron’s office”.
The debate was organised by Churches Together, an ecumenical organisation in the prime minister’s constituency, which has since found itself at the centre of a storm in a political teacup and denies any impropriety. When Peedell contacted Churches Together to complain about his omission, the organisers replied they had “no idea” that he was running.
Despite emailing to point out his existence a fortnight before the 10 April event, and noting that his details appeared on the first result of a Google search for ‘Witney candidates 2015’ , Peedell was informed by Nick Hance, the church organisation’s vice-chair, that it was now “too late to include you”.
“I think Cameron dodged it,” said Peedell, who is campaigning for increased health funding and an end to the NHS internal market. “It’s clearly being stage-managed. They’re just so worried about those past episodes with [Tony] Blair and [Gordon] Brown and [John] Major, this whole issue of the public getting involved. They don’t want him to be challenged by people with expertise in a specialist area, especially the NHS.”
Other candidates who did participate agreed that the debate was an example of political micromanagement. Stuart Macdonald, the Green party candidate, said the organisers saw it as “an occasion for celebrity”. He claimed that Hance had told him in a meeting that it “hardly mattered” whether other candidates attended because the important thing was “getting Cameron”.
Duncan Enright, the Labour party candidate, said he doubted deliberate collusion but felt that Churches Together “may well have been influenced by the fact that it’s the prime minister”. He described the tight control of the event as “The Mrs Duffy effect”, a reference to Gordon Brown’s unscripted encounter with a disgruntled member of the public during the 2010 election.
According to Hance, the only contact with the Conservatives “was to do with security implications so that they could mount the appropriate defence of David Cameron”. The strict controls on the event were not limited to the candidates, however. A photographer for the Oxford Mail, Damian Halliwell, said that he was made to leave the church by Natasha Whitmill, Cameron’s election agent in Witney, in favour of the church group’s official choice, Mark Hemsworth, who is from Chipping Norton, regularly photographs Mr Cameron and has tweeted his approval of the Conservatives .
Whitmill said that the choice to only allow one photographer had been “a decision the organisers made”, any suggestions of interference were completely untrue and that “anything untoward was for security”.
Hance insisted that Cameron’s team had been “at pains to point out that they were not going to interfere”. But in an email sent to another photographer excluded from the event on 8 April, and CCed to Whitmill, Hance wrote: “Following instructions this morning from Cameron’s office, I have been asked to limit the number of photographers present … to just one person – namely Mark Hemsworth.”
Campaigning in Witney this week, Peedell borrowed a line of Labour leader Ed Miliband’s and called on the prime minister to debate him on the NHS “any time, any place, anywhere”. Whitmill said that his invitation was unlikely to be taken up.
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