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From living in a small Essex bungalow to working as a barrister, Anna Firth has stuck by causes including Brexit and the role of families. Now she is faced with the daunting task of defeating Rosie Duffield and repainting “God’s constituency” blue.
Few stories are as tragic as the Conservative party’s demise at the 2017 general election. After Theresa May called an early snap election hoping the increase her mandate to deliver the Brexit she aimed to set out, many had not predicted the chaos that was soon to follow. The party fell victim to a manifesto that still haunts its faithful, losing its majority to a Labour party which had been revitalised under the charismatic leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, who struck a chord with voters – young people, especially – thanks to his progressive manifesto aiming to rebuild a society ‘For the many, not the few’. The Conservative’s fall was reminiscent of Thomas Beckett. As Chaucer’s pilgrims in search of enlightenment, we witnessed the tragic decapitation of Tory MPs who had fell out of touch with their fellow servants; none more dire than that of Sir Julian Brazier in Canterbury.
A senior figure for more than three decades, Brazier lost his seat to the relatively unknown and inexperienced social democrat Rosie Duffield, a move which shocked the realms of Westminster. This was a constituency that was Conservative since World War One. The shock result cost Brazier his job and ever since June 8, 2017, the party have been in rehabilitation mode. This summer, the party held its primary to choose the next person to regain what many describe to be the ‘Garden of England’.
Hundreds of people applied, but Grieg Baker, the then local chair, whittled the candidates to a longlist of 8 who were then whittled down again by the Association Executive to just four who faced a large special general meeting. After an intense round of voting in Tokyo Tea Rooms – a joint owned by Tory supporters – chaired by former party leader Lord Howard of Lympne, Anna Firth, 53, came through with a first-round majority that automatically gave her victory. The Sevenoaks chairperson and councillor rejoiced of her “delight” in being chosen, which came as a result of her pitch to local members promising to put “Canterbury back on the map”.
InQuire sat down with Anna for her first ever interview as prospective parliamentary candidate. Wearing a chequered blue and white blazer, blue skinny jeans and bright gold eyeshadow – and displaying vivid blonde hair unmissable to the eye – Anna agreed to speak the morning before she was set to help out with the Kent University Conservative Coalition’s stand at the University Welcome Fayre.
Although Firth does not reside in Canterbury, Whitstable or any of the surrounding villages, she professed her endearment to the city through her experience as a campaigner and has been tipped for some time to become an MP. Looking back at the leadership campaign, Anna said she “applied to Canterbury because Kent is my county”. Anna avouches that she was the only person in the final four shortlisted to have “a clear vision for what I wanted to do in Canterbury”. She was also the only candidate to boast county credentials, which may help head off the traditional line of attack of rivals that she had been parachuted into the seat.
Anna was brought up in a small bungalow in Essex by her mother who would work extremely long hours in order to raise her two children and enable Anna to go on to study at Durham, train a barrister and then serve as a local politician. “My mum taught me that if you work hard, then anything should be possible. Where you've come from is nowhere near as important as where you're going and that you must always give back.” This, Anna said, is one of the reasons why she is a conservative. “I stand up to the underdog whenever I can and I return to that value, even now.”
Growing up and raising three children has also made Anna realise the importance of the family in relation to the state. “If we want society to succeed, the family must succeed. Families must be able to bring up the next generation and also care for the older generation.” However, Anna pondered whether she was a feminist. In the end, she said no. “I believe in equal opportunity for everyone. I don't really identify with the traditional form of feminism where women burn bras and chain themselves onto railings. Maybe because I was extremely lucky when I became a barrister. There were women in in my chambers, but not many. And it never occurred to me that there was any prejudice. I didn't feel I had to rail against something. I felt as if I was accepted on my own merits.”
In selecting Firth, Canterbury Conservatives opted for someone who has been tipped to become an MP for some time. She has been a Parliamentary candidate before, contesting the Erith and Thamesmead constituency. She reached the shortlist for Thanet South in 2014 – losing out to Craig Mackinlay – and came close to being selected as the Conservative candidate in the Rochester and Strood by-election in 2014, losing out to Kelly Tolhurst who recaptured the seat in 2015 by only 36 votes. More recently, Anna stood in the South East region in the recent European election, where the party managed to save one MEP in the South East, Daniel Hannan.
The party has suffered electorally since 2016. When asked what went wrong for the party in the last election, Anna pondered for a second before admitting: “I don't think that we had a very good manifesto at all. I was campaigning hard during that election in in one of the target seats for one of my friends in Dagenham. And it was going incredibly well. We were 22-points ahead when we started that election. And there was a great response on the doorstep. And then she issued that Manifesto. And literally overnight, the reaction changed. They didn't like her stance on fox hunting. They didn't like the stance on taking away children's free lunches. And in particular, they didn't like the stance on the dementia tax.” At the same time as the party having an unpopular message nationally, locally Labour and the Liberal Democrats coalesced. Furthermore: “Julian [Brazier] was sent out of the area by CCHQ in the last two weeks of the campaign. He spent eight days of that in marginals around the place. He wasn't allowed to campaign in his own patch.”
In reaction to what has happened in the local and national elections, Anna has been unafraid to take her own party to task. In an article for Conservative Home, she blamed “Westminster ineptitude” for the severe losses of “hard-working local Conservative councillors across the country” in May’s local elections and that “it did not have to be that way and it must not be allowed to be that way again”.
Anna thinks that the party needs the opposite approach from two years ago. “We have got to have a good manifesto, with policies, proper conservative policies that are going to actually appeal to people.” For Firth, that means lower taxes, set taxation rates at levels which will attract investment as well as more investment in public services. Her vision of Canterbury focuses on developing a new medical innovation centre, tourism and better public services. “Canterbury and Whitstable are national jewels. This is God's own constituency. Seven and a half million visitors come to Canterbury every single year. I don't think we've actually got the investment in the infrastructure that Canterbury needs.”
Elsewhere, Firth wants more town police officers and better jobs for young people. She commented: “It's not acceptable to me that the average salary in the city is 22,000 pounds, and that the average national salary is 28,000 pounds. That is not acceptable.” The University, Anna emphasised, is part of her additional plan to develop a medical innovation centre in Canterbury. She said the establishment of the medical school at UKC was “fantastic” and wants Canterbury to “lead the way in life sciences”.
Anna made headlines this summer when she claimed she can convince Boris Johnson to build a Kent and Canterbury super hospital, but many MPs have been critical of the initiative. Damien Green, former Deputy Prime Minister and Ashford MP, branded the idea “mad”. Anna said that there will have to be a consultation on the different options in East Kent but argued: “It's absolutely clear if you go to the three hospitals, and you talk to people, there has been more investment in the other two sites. Logically, it's our turn here in Canterbury to get some investment in our health service.” In response to Green, Firth retaliated: “Whatever the other MPs say, I will be battling and fighting to get that that's what's good for the people of Canterbury. That’s my job.”
One thing that was evident in our encounter was her reluctance to criticise the current incumbent, Rosie Duffield. “I don't want this election to be all about personalities,” stressed Firth. “I would rather that we talked about policies and issues and who is actually the Prime Minister that we want to be running the country. So that's that would be my focus.” It has been rumoured that Duffield may not be standing as a Labour/Co-operative candidate come next poling day, and that she may be switching to the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats that want to revoke Article 50 without a ‘People’s Vote’.
A fervent Brexiteer, Firth saddened at the current state of British democracy. As of writing, the Supreme Court has ruled that Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue parliament was unconstitutional. “We've been divided as a party, we've been divided in families, friendship groups have been divided over Brexit, you know, people have declared their positions on Facebook and been shocked at the reaction of their friends.” On the other hand, Anna says this democratic deficit had revitalised political participation and engagement. “I've got friends abroad, who ring me or message me and say, ‘Gosh, your parliament is just absolutely amazing’. And they've been watching our Parliament over the last eight months and seeing the debates.”
Firth co-chaired Vote Leave's Women for Britain and gave insight into her vision of a Britain outside the EU. “Brexit is a process,” she reiterated. “Brexit is a way for us as a country to be able to forge our own trade deals again, all around the world. It was the reason that I was pro-Brexit in the first place. For me, it was all about sovereignty, the world is changing, you know, regional trading blocks are not the future any longer. We need to be able to trade freely around the entire world. The sooner we get into a place where we can actually start to do those things, the better. For me, it wasn't about immigration, that wasn't the big issue. I believe we should have a fair immigration policy and treat everybody fairly”
Despite working alongside the same campaign as BoJo, Firth backed Chequers, a paper which resulted in Johnson resigning as Foreign Secretary. She said it was a “compromise deal, which I [could] live with” but was still sceptical of some of the finer details, in particular the backstop and the facilitated customs arrangements. Fast-forward a year and Firth publicly endorsed Johnson for No 10, a man who said that Britain will leave on October 31 “with or without a deal, no ifs not buts”.
The majority of students voted for Jeremy Corbyn at the last election and remaining in the EU respectively. One Tory aide noted how the “students will loathe her”. But Anna wants to change the stereotype and recognise their needs more. She cited May, and how she never saw her at a youth rally. Compare that with Boris: “He engages far more with young people and likes them. That is our starting point; you’ve got to be out, you've got to actually want to speak to young people, how can you represent people that you don't even speak to? My approach will be to try and talk to the university, to come when I'm invited and speak as much as possible and to listen. You can't represent people unless you know what they actually care about, so listening comes first.”
As to her prospects of winning, she is unlikely to have a better chance of fulfilling her ambition of sitting in the House of Commons. And with a snap-election rumoured to be looming around the corner, she may get that chance sooner rather than later.
On David Cameron
“A moderniser and somebody who took our party out of the wilderness and back into government. Disappointed in him releasing his memoir this week, but completely understand why he thinks that now is a great moment. But at the end of the day, I like Cameron. I met Cameron on the campaign trail in Rochester, and I think he's a decent man.”
On Nigel Farage
“Extremist. Nigel Farage is becoming more extreme as he's getting older. And he is divisive. I don't like that approach to politics.”
“Yellow hammer is precautions for the worst case. And I'm very pleased to know that we as a as a county have prepared fully for any Brexit Fallout that comes along. I've looked at yellow hammer and I've talked to the county councillors and I'm very reassured that the amount of work that's being done.”