Kicked out of the Tory Party over coronavirus claims, MP Andrew Bridgen has now migrated to Reclaim.
Martyn Lester surveys his career
First published in Searchlight magazine (Summer 2023)
The Reclaim Party, the right-wing political organisation best known for its frontman, the actor Laurence Fox, surprisingly gained its first member of parliament in May. As has more than once been the case with fringe movements, it did so not by winning a seat at a general election or by-election, but by clasping in its unsavoury embrace a renegade sitting MP – Andrew Bridgen, the member for North West Leicestershire.
It would not be accurate to describe Bridgen as having defected from the Conservatives, because the Tories had already kicked him out of the party. He had been sitting as an independent for a month before clambering aboard the Reclaim bandwagon (such as it is).
During his 13 years as a Conservative MP, Bridgen made a reputation for himself as a serial rebel and backstabber. Aside from repeatedly defying party whips, he is rumoured to have submitted letters of no confidence in at least three of the five Tory prime ministers of the period – David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson (despite supporting Johnson’s successful 2019 leadership bid).
Andrew Bridgen Photo: Diseworth Heritage Centre
Although the European Reform Group – the hardline ‘no-deal Brexit’ faction of Conservative MPs – never publishes a membership list, Bridgen has been identified as a member of the group via ‘resources pool’ declarations in his parliamentary expenses.
Similarly, there is no official roll of members of the overlapping anti-lockdown Covid Recovery Group, but Bridgen was one of the 53 Tory MPs recorded as having filed into the ‘No’ lobby to vote against his own government’s Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (All Tiers) (England) Regulations 2020 motion in December 2020 (ie he was opposed to renewing the Covid 19 lockdown).
It was Bridgen’s fevered coronavirus preoccupations that led to his eventual ejection from the Conservative Party, although not for merely voting against the government. After a series of escalating anti-vax comments, some based on wild conspiracy theories, he eventually tweeted that the Covid-19 vaccination programme was ‘the biggest crime against humanity since the Holocaust’.
Although claims that this was an overtly anti-Semitic statement are open for debate, such devil-may-care use of the Nazi genocide to support a completely unconnected argument was at minimum grossly insensitive, and it is hard to believe that Bridgen could not have predicted that it would spark widespread outrage. Among those who lambasted him for the comment was Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who said that ‘it is utterly unacceptable to make linkages and use language like that’.
And it is not as if Bridgen has received no prior schooling on taking care not to totter at the boundary between clumsiness of expression and apparent anti-Semitism. Some years ago he was taken to task for referring, in a House of Commons debate on Palestinian statehood, to ‘the power of the Jewish lobby in America’.
We have no space here to deep-dive into a complicated subject, but to characterise Israel-focused lobbies in the USA as ‘Jewish’ is to badly miss two important points: that American Jewish opinion is diverse and should not be misrepresented as monolithic and that support in the USA for hardline Israeli governments is at least as likely to be expressed by right-wing Christian evangelicals as by their Jewish counterparts.
At the time of being defenestrated by his party, Bridgen was already serving a suspension from the Commons for having broken the MPs’ code of conduct ‘on multiple occasions and in multiple ways’ regarding declarations of interest and paid lobbying. But, because he had been sentenced to just a five-day ban, he was not subject to a possible recall petition by his constituents.
Lied under oath
It would be tedious to list all of the times that Bridgen has been in hot or at least warm water with his party, but with hindsight many would question why the Tories kept him in the fold after a High Court judge last year found him to have ‘lied under oath and behaved in an abusive, arrogant and aggressive manner’ in court, and to have been ‘an unreliable and combative witness who tried to conceal his own misconduct’.
Did they not believe that this was enough to count as having brought their party into disrepute?
Bridgen’s Brexit and Covid preoccupations made him a natural fit for the Reclaim Party. The group’s sugardaddy, third-of-a-billionaire trainspotter Jeremy Hosking, had already donated the best part of £2 million to Vote Leave, Brexit Express and Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, before providing a £1 million launch fund for Fox’s outfit. And the Reclaim front man himself campaigned against Covid-19 lockdown and encouraged others to break the government’s coronavirus regulations.
Presumably, Bridgen will stand as a Reclaim candidate and defend his seat at the next general election in the UK. Whether he has any chance of staying in the job is difficult to predict. Pre-Brexit referendum, UKIP acquired a pair of defecting Conservative MPs who enjoyed/suffered very different fates when they eventually tested their public support at a general election.
Believer or not?
Clacton MP Douglas Carswell and Rochester and Strood MP Mark Reckless defected to UKIP in 2014, each resigning to force by-elections themed on their anti-European Union stances.
Although both won their by elections (each in relatively low turnouts), only Carswell did so convincingly, and at the following year’s general election, Reckless (whom some consider to be an example of nominative determinism) was outpolled by the official Tory candidate.
There were, it must be said, variables involved. Carswell was fairly obviously a squatter in UKIP (he eventually redefected to become an independent). He made no secret of regarding Farage as a bit of an arse while, shortly after the referendum, Farage described Carswell as ‘somebody inside our party who doesn’t agree with anything the party stands for’.
Reckless, on the other hand, seems to have been more of a true believer, and later reunited with Farage in the so-called Brexit Party (it was not, in any proper sense, a party at all).
Whether Andrew Bridgen has anything like the personal following and constituency respect of Douglas Carswell or will become as forgettable as Mark Reckless (whose most recent dice with electoral destiny saw him coming an ignominious seventh in the contest to represent Monmouth in the Welsh Parliament) remains to be seen. Our guess is that he will be less of a skyrocket than a damp squib.
Pending, as we go to press, is the outcome of Fox’s own candidacy in the July by-election in Boris Johnson’s former seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip.
Fox’s last run for office, in the 2021 election for London Mayor, saw him garner a less than impressive 1.9% of the vote, despite Reform UK (formerly the Brexit Party) standing aside in his favour, and an endorsement from Farage.
Fox was beaten to fifth place in the poll by YouTube prankster Niko Omilana, although he did poll nearly twice as many votes as Count Binface – an ‘intergalactic space warrior’, apparently.