Tories accused of ‘caving’ by selecting ex-MP Peter Bone's partner to stand in Wellinborough

Helen Harrison, girlfriend of Peter Bone, stands as Conservative candidate in Wellingborough by-election.
Helen Harrison is currently a councillor on North Northamptonshire Council. Credit: Conservative Party / PA

Labour has accused the Conservatives of “caving” to the reported demands of a disgraced ex-MP to pick his partner to stand in his former seat in a by-election.

Former Tory MP Peter Bone was ousted from the Commons in December and a by-election triggered after more than 10% of constituents in his Wellingborough seat voted to recall him.

The recall petition was sparked when Mr Bone was handed a six-week suspension from the House of Commons after an inquiry found he had subjected a staff member to bullying and sexual misconduct.

According to a report in The Times in October, Mr Bone, a former minister, had been threatening to stand as an independent candidate in the by-election, potentially splitting the Tory vote, if his partner, Helen Harrison, was not selected as the party’s candidate.

Conservative Party chairman Richard Holden announced on Sunday that Ms Harrison, a councillor on North Northamptonshire Council, had been picked to fight the election for the party.

He tweeted: "Congratulations to Cllr Helen Harrison on being selected for Wellingborough at a packed meeting of Conservative members this afternoon.”

Ms Harrison said she was "delighted" to have been selected.

She said: "I cannot wait to get out campaigning to get my message across to everyone here.

"I want to help deliver for the people of Wellingborough and Rushden, as we continue to focus on their priorities."

  • "It would seem that the Conservatives are going in with one hand tied behind their back," says journalism lecturer Kate Ironside

It has been widely reported that Mr Bone and Ms Harrison, who contested the Bolsover seat in 2017 for the Conservatives, are dating.

Ms Harrison has posted a number of photos on social media of them out canvassing together, including since the Tory whip was suspended from Mr Bone following the publication of an inquiry by Parliament’s behaviour watchdog into his conduct.

Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow paymaster general, said: "Rishi Sunak caving to Peter Bone’s demand to select his partner so he doesn’t run as an independent shows just how weak the prime minister is.

"Rishi Sunak is too weak to lead his own party, let alone the country.

"The people of Wellingborough deserve the best possible candidate to represent them, not the product of a quick political fix.

"Only Labour can deliver the change the voters want to see and give Britain its future back."

In October, Mr Bone was found to have "committed many varied acts of bullying and one act of sexual misconduct" against a staff member in 2012 and 2013.

Parliament’s behaviour watchdog, the Independent Expert Panel, upheld an earlier investigation which found he broke the MPs’ code of conduct on four counts of bullying and one of sexual misconduct.

Will Bone link be hindrance for Tory candidate?

While the new Conservative candidate has the credentials to run, her link to the former MP may be an unhelpful reminder of scandal in the minds of voters, according to a media commentator.

Kate Ironside, a lecturer in broadcast journalism at the University of Northampton, said: "At one level you can look at it that no woman would want their career defined by who their partner is, but it does beg the question, is it going to be a hindrance for her in the campaign?

"The Conservative Party could have gone for a candidate with no connection whatsoever - would that have made it easier for them? We’ll see in the hurly-burly of the campaign, but it would seem that they’re going in with one hand tied behind their back.

"Helen Harrison is a very experienced candidate, she’s a local councillor, she’s served as a parliamentary candidate before. On those grounds alone has all the experience necessary to run," she added.

"The difficulty she has is she’s the partner of the disgraced former MP and the big question is will this be a hindrance on her campaign? Will this keep the scandal of Peter Bone centre stage rather than something which disappears into the background?”

The panel found that he had indecently exposed himself to the complainant in the bathroom of a hotel room during a work trip to Madrid.

Mr Bone has repeatedly denied the allegations and said in his statement following the result of the recall petition last month that he will "have more to say on these matters in the new year".

The veteran politician was kicked out of the Tory parliamentary party a day after the report was published on 16 October.

A date for the by-election has not been set but rules around parliamentary procedure mean it will not take place before February.

Wellingborough has been held by the Conservatives since 2005, when Mr Bone won it from Labour.

The upcoming contest is likely to be a test for the Prime Minister’s party, despite Mr Bone securing a healthy majority in 2019.

He held the Northamptonshire seat with a majority of 18,540 over Labour, but the Tories have suffered a series of by-election defeats in recent years, including in constituencies which were theoretically safer.

The majority is smaller than the Tory cushions in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire which fell to Sir Keir Starmer’s party in October.

Labour has picked Gen Kitchen as the party’s candidate in Wellingborough.

It will be one of at least two Westminster by-elections due this year, with Chris Skidmore triggering a contest in his Kingswood constituency in South Gloucestershire when the former government net-zero tsar announced last week that he was leaving Parliament in protest at Mr Sunak’s decision to grant more North Sea oil and gas drilling licences.

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