Whither Witney? The by-election everyone's watching

23 September 2016

After the shock resignation of former Prime Minister David Cameron earlier this month, the race to find his successor concluded last night.

The Conservative Race

As one of the Conservative’s safest seats (David Cameron secured a 25,155 majority in 2015), speculation around who would fight for Conservative representation was intense, and included several notable Tory members vying to return to the Labour benches.

The long list of possible candidates reportedly included former Wirral West MP and Employment Minister Esther McVey, whilst Scottish Conservative Party Leader Ruth Davidson ruled herself out of the race early on.

It was also reported that “Eurosceptic heavyweight” Dan Hannan MEP had hoped to reach the shortlist. 

However, it was made clear that constituents were looking for a replacement with connections to the seat, rather than a candidate parachuted in to take over.

As the list was whittled down, three prominent councillors and a former Senior Parliamentary Researcher to David Cameron made the list.

David McFarlane (Chair of West Oxfordshire Conservatives), James Mills (West Oxfordshire District Council Leader), and Robert Courts (West Oxfordshire District Council) were selected, alongside David Cameron’s former staffer, Natasha Whitmill.

Recently awarded a CBE in Mr Cameron’s controversial resignation honours list, Ms Whitmill was Mr Cameron’s favoured successor, sparking accusations of cronyism.

However, in a mild-mannered but tightly-fought Conservative selection race, West Oxfordshire Conservative Association announced that Robert Courts had been selected as the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate, and successor to Mr Cameron.

Who is Robert Courts?

A Barrister and Deputy Leader of West Oxfordshire District Council, Robert Courts has a strong interest in small businesses, defence and the armed forces, and rural issues. He is reported to be a supporter of fox hunting, in line with demands from the local association.

Schooled in Berkhamsted, Mr Courts read law at Sheffield University, and was called to the Bar in 2003 at Lincolns’ Inn, where he has served as a scholar. At the time of his selection, Mr Court was practising as a barrister from chambers in Oxford, specialising in crime, personal injury and clinical negligence.

An active party member since 1998, Mr Courts has served as Chair of Conservative Future in Meriden for two years, and was Chair and City Council candidate for St Paul Ward and campaign manager for the County Council elections in 2009 when he lived in Winchester. He also worked on Steve Brine’s campaign team in 2010.

Having moved to the West Oxfordshire area in 2010, he lives in Bladon with his wife, Kathryn, and their son. 

A keen blues guitarist, cyclist and amateur historian, Mr Courts is a committee member of the Churchill Centre (UK), an international organisation set up to celebrate the life and work of Winston Churchill, and frequently writes articles for its magazine, <i>Finest Hour</i>.

At a local government level, Mr Court has a particular interest in planning and licensing matters, as well as matters of rural concern. In May 2015, Mr Courts held the Portfolio for Housing and Communities on the Cabinet of West Oxfordshire District Council.

Reflecting on his time as a self-employed barrister, Mr Courts stated on his personal website: “As a self-employed person and member of the Federation of Small Businesses, he is well aware of the pressures facing small businesses in the local economy”.

A supporter of several charitable organisations, such as the RNLI, the Vulcan to the Sky Trust, the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Oxfordshire Rural Community Council.

He has also volunteered as a speaker for the Thames Valley and Chiltern Air Ambulance.

A former member of the University Officers' Training Corps, Mr Courts has been a supporter of RAFBF, Combat Stress and Help for Heroes.

Who will he face?

West Oxfordshire Councillor Duncan Enright was selected as the Labour candidate, having stood against Mr Cameron in the 2015 General Election. In a statement after his selection, Mr Enright pledged to fight the opening of new grammar schools. He criticised the Government for the deterioration of local health services and for failing to invest in transport infrastructure.

In addition, Liz Leffman was selected as the Liberal Democrat candidate. A Councillor on Charlbury Town Council, Ms Leffman has voiced her opposition to cuts in social care and local bus services.

Representing the Green Party is Larry Sanders, 81, the elder brother of former Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Born in Brooklyn, the former Oxford City councillor moved to the UK in 1968. A seasoned parliamentary candidate, Mr Sanders is the Party’s Health Spokesperson.

“We need to show that we don't want Britain to be the most unequal country in Europe. We don't want unmet health needs to increase when we already have too few doctors, nurses, and hospital beds…This is a rich, capable and decent country. We can do better", he commented.

The Witney by-election will take place on 20 October 2016. A by-election will take place in Batley and Spen on the same day.

Jasmine Mitchell
Jasmine Mitchell
Political Analyst

Jasmine Mitchell is a Political Analyst at DeHavilland, where she monitors the UK Parliament and devolved institutions. She first joined DeHavilland as a Research Assistant in January 2015. Jasmine holds a BA in Modern History and Politics from the University of Liverpool and a Masters in Conflict, Security and Development from King's College London.