The new Conservative party chair, Greg Hands, has said this year’s local elections in England will be difficult but that the Tories are in “overall good shape”, with Lee Anderson a man of “great integrity” working as his deputy.
Hands, who was promoted to Nadhim Zahawi’s former role in Rishi Sunak’s reshuffle on Tuesday, also said his party would have a “really good story to tell” at next year’s general election.
But he struggled to defend controversial remarks Anderson made as a prominent backbencher.
Hands, the MP for Chelsea and Fulham, told Sky News: “We’ve obviously got difficult local elections this year. The Conservative party is overall in good shape. Membership is improving, the financial position of the party I think is improving. I’m definitely up for it. I know Rishi Sunak is up for it.
“We’re really looking forward to taking on Sir Keir Starmer’s unreformed Labour party and the other parties as well.
“I think the Conservative party will have a really good story to tell at next year’s general election and we’re definitely looking forward to it.”
During a Commons speech in May, Anderson suggested people in the UK used food banks because they “cannot cook properly” and “cannot budget”.
Hands said he refused to get into a “running commentary” on Anderson’s comments, telling Times Radio: “He is a man of great integrity. Fantastic background, former coalminer and actually until, not that long ago, a member of the Labour party and so he’s somebody I think who brings something different to the party and I think he and I will work very well together.”
Anderson’s promotion to deputy Tory party chair has been seen as Sunak’s attempt to shore up support within the “red wall”.
The MP for Ashfield began his working life as a miner, and took his Nottinghamshire constituency from Labour in 2019.
Since Anderson’s constituency win, he has become known for making controversial remarks. He got the nickname “30p Lee” after claiming meals could be prepared for that sum and suggesting people using food banks could not budget.
Reiterating the point, Anderson tweeted the example of his assistant, who he said could manage on a modest salary in London. Others noted that the assistant was single, without dependants and lived in a shared property.
In 2021, when the men’s Euro 2020 football tournament was taking place, he vowed to boycott England matches in protest against the players’ antiracism stance of taking the knee before matches. Even when Gareth Southgate’s team got to the final, Anderson said he would not tune in – although he did say he might check the score on his phone.
Asked if he or the party endorsed those various views, he said: “In terms of things that may or may not have been said in the past, I don’t have encyclopaedic knowledge of what everybody has ever said in the past.”
With Labour 20 points ahead in the polls, many Tory MPs have privately admitted the challenge that awaits them in the May local elections.
Senior Tories in local government expect a trouncing, given the strain on public services and councils against a backdrop of the highest tax levels in decades.
Source: The Guardian