If Sir Hugo Swire knows the identity of the next Conservative parliamentary candidate for East Devon he’s remaining discretely tight-lipped.
This week is Sir Hugo’s last as the Tory elected member for East Devon and with just today left in the House of Commons, he is busy packing up his office of the last 18-plus years and saying goodbye to his staff, making them redundant.
After almost two decades of mostly behind-the-scenes battling for his East Devon constituents, Sir Hugo recently announced he would not stand at the next election, throwing the question out there – who will replace him?
Sir Hugo said his successor is likely to be announced by the end of the week.
He said: “It is out of my hands. I don’t have any influence on it. They are going through a process. They are going through elimination rounds now and I think they will be announced on Saturday.”
He admits he was ‘tempted’ to stay on and fight another day because of the sheer importance of the December General Election.
His slight reluctance to step down as East Devon MP is further driven by a desire to again beat Independent hopeful Claire Wright and of a belief the General Election will result in the East Devon Tory candidate gaining more than 50 per cent of the vote share.
“I would like to be part of that,” said Sir Hugo. “I shall be putting my money on it.”
“I was tempted to stay as Claire Wright said this is the last time she would be standing,” he added.
“This is a very, very important election. So important I nearly reconsidered my decision to step down.
“I think people are enormously frustrated; for three years they have been frustrated by the skulkery and not always being truthful.
“In East Devon it was very close but the majority of people voted to leave and you should honour that.
“I voted to remain but the people voted to leave, so I changed. And now fundamentally that should happen.”
Sir Hugo insists his decision to step down was not driven by a fear of losing to his rivals what, for many years, has been considered a safe Tory seat.
He remains confident the new Conservative candidate will be the popular choice for East Devon’s voters.
He warned tactical voting locally could result nationally in a coalition government led by Labour and Jeremy Corbin, ‘propped up’ by Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish National Party.
He said a hard-left government of the Scottish National Party would be ‘very dangerous’ for the country, adding “Marxist ideology is not popular in East Devon.”
“This is a Brexit election.” He said. “To get Brexit done you have got to vote Conservative.
“However annoyed people are in the constituency, however annoyed you feel we have not come out on those agreed dates, if the Conservative government gets in with a good majority, Brexit will follow as sure as night follows day.”
Sir Hugo said East Devon voters keen to stop Brexit had more vote choice – Independent Claire Wright, Liberal Democrats and Labour.
He said East Devon voters should be aware the expectation of an Independent candidate stopping Brexit was like ‘Canute sitting in a chair and trying to stop the sea’.
“To revoke Article 50, they have a bigger choice. They can vote for Labour or the Liberal Democrats,” said Sir Hugo.
“Why would you vote for an Independent if you want to stop Brexit – why not vote for the Liberal Democrats? They have a national voice. They have more influence.
“I think the Liberal Democrats will do better this time. It’s difficult to see where Claire Wright’s going to get the support from this time.
“She’s a good campaigner but there’s a difference between legislator and campaigner.”
Away from the politics of East Devon and Westminster, Sir Hugo will continue as deputy chairman of The Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council.
He plans to live in Devon and London, as work dictates.
“I will be taken out of Devon in a coffin… hopefully not just yet,” he said.
He is modest in his achievements during his time as MP, choosing to list some of his recent successes, saving Ottery St Mary Hospital for the town’s health hub, ringfencing £3million for a new primary school in Ottery, and saving Exmouth’s Rolle College from the bulldozers.
He said confidentiality often prevented him from publicly shouting about his work behind the scenes in East Devon.
On Sir Hugo’s list of future hopes for East Devon are a ‘satisfactory outcome’ and more visitor attractions for Exmouth’s Queen’s Drive development, further progress at the Science Park, attracting more businesses and jobs, halting the potential spread of development at Cranbrook – protecting the individual villages of Marsh Green, Rockbeare and Whimple – plus more affordable homes so local people can continue to live, work and raise their families in the towns where they grew up.
“The saddest thing is how the development at Cranbrook has been handled,” he said. “It seems to me to be completely wrong not to build the town centre first.
“I feel the variety of developers have been running circles around everybody at Cranbrook.
“East Devon is such a wonderful part of the world. Everybody wants to come and live here. The developers know they can sell their houses ten times over. It’s putting a huge strain on our landscape.
“We have to build a bit smarter, make use of more brown field sites as much as possible, and look within the boundaries of Exeter.”
For now, Sir Hugo has his Westminster office to pack up and almost two decades of ‘accumulated stuff’ to go through before he leaves.
His decision to step down now was prompted by age; he will be 65 when the next General Election is held in 2024.
He won’t turn his back on politics completely. His role with the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council involves trade between the 57 members of the commonwealth, and will include politics and travel.
“I didn’t want to be an ageing back bench politician,” he said. “I am 60 next month and I want to get out. I decided to step down because I will be 65 when the next election is held in 2024.
“I am not retiring, far from it. I am not giving up on politics.”
Although his departure is imminent, if you think you have seen the back of Sir Hugo, think again.
“Look at Mick Jagger. How many farewell tours has the Rolling Stones done now?
“I am fortunate to have been returned in five general elections.
“I ended my career for East Devon with the increased share of the vote. I was clearly doing something right.
“I would like to thank people for putting up with me. It’s been the honour of my life – a tremendous honour. It’s something I will never forget.”
Ex-BBC reporter and MP Martin Bell launches campaign of Independent East Devon parliamentary candidate Claire Wright