By Harry Mottram: Elected in 2015 as the Member of Parliament for the Wells constituency (that includes Axbridge and Burnham on Sea) with a majority of 7,585 the Conservative’s James Heappey became the Armed Forces Minister and was at one time tipped to replace Ben Wallace as Defence Secretary during the current parliament. In any other parliament he would be seen as a success in terms of high office – with many feeling he has had a ‘good’ war – he was given regular airtime on TV and the Radio to explain the UK’s military support for Ukraine – a policy that has seen cross party consensus and the backing of the majority of voters.

However today, Friday 15th March 2024, Mr Heappey has announced he is standing down at the next election as he explained in a statement to ‘prioritise my family and pursue a different career.’ He isn’t the only Tory MP standing down as he is the 62nd Conservative MP to announce that they will not be standing at the next election. Whether it is the Reform party chipping away at the Tory majority or the problems Rishi Sunak currently has are unlikely to be factors in his decision.

Tessa Munt

Although he has cited plans to start a new career and spend more time with his family there are perhaps other reasons at play in his decision. Opinion polls suggest Labour have a good chance of winning the next election when it comes – anytime between this summer and January 2025 – although Labour are unlikely to overturn Heappey’s majority since they do not enjoy strong support locally. The main challenger are the Liberal Democrats with their candidate the former MP for the constituency Tessa Munt. According to local polls she has a good chance of taking the seat for the Lib Dems – although by no means certain. The Constituency is changing with boundary changes – it loses Burnham-on-Sea – and gains Yatton and the Mendips – in themselves those adjustments shouldn’t change the overall demographics – perhaps slightly fewer retirement voters but more rural ones. In other words that won’t have been a major factor in his decision to leave politics.

One factor that will have played on his mind and that is the failure of Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt to announce an increase in defence spending. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace had been critical of the levels of spending in the past and no doubt the lack of announcements on the military to him would have been a disappointment as many in the Conservative Party feel Britain’s defences have been depleted. With the dictator of Russia pressing a war in Ukraine and regularly making threats to attack western nations some believe we are in a pre-World War era and the lessons of 1939 have not been learnt.

I won’t go into the usual cliché excuse to leave politics that James Heappey wants to ‘spend more time with his family’ as those who know him and his family will understand there is more to that statement than meets the eye. However, his desire to have a new career is understandable and also potentially very realistic as ex-military Government ministers have a history of moving into the arms industry or military consultancy business – a very lucrative sector of the economy. He served in the Army, reaching the rank of major, and during a 10-year career in the Rifles, he served in Afghanistan, Iraq, Northern Ireland and Kenya. Plus, he has an inside knowledge of the UK’s defence policy and an insight into NATO and its operations.

David Heathcoat-Amery

James Heappey was elected to parliament in 2015 – in an election in which the Liberal Democrats lost most of their MPs following the Coalition Government of David Cameron and Nick Clegg. The Tories’ austerity policy of the Conservatives took the credit for reducing spending defeating Labour led by Ed Miliband. Heappey replaced Tessa Munt who had held the seat since 2010 – she having beaten David Heathcoat-Amory for the Conservatives who had held the seat since 1983. She benefitted from a swing to the Lib Dems in 2010 but also the expenses scandal which saw Heathcoat-Amory exposed as having spent taxpayers money on his garden despite his considerable wealth. With the news Heappey is standing down Tessa Munt must be thinking the odds of her winning back the seat – albeit changed in area – are strong. She was elected as Somerset County councillor for Wells in 2017 and has retained a high profile locally appearing at local events like harvest homes and as Executive Lead Member for Children and Families in county hall. And of course she was reselected as Lib Dem’s candidate last year.

As a local reporter having worked for Mid Somerset Newspapers in the past along with other journalists, I obviously had conversations with James Heappey over news stories. To be candid relations with him and the local media were not always convivial to put it mildly as he was often seen as thin-skinned by some colleagues. And judging by the many comments on social media in Axbridge he has not always endeared himself to residents due to failing to respond to enquiries about local issues. To be fair an MP is not accountable for such things as potholes, planning decisions and whether the bins are collected – those fall to county councils. And he lent his support for the re-instatement of the 126 bus service as well as improving the number of rail services at Highbridge amongst other local issues as a good MP should.  

Critics will say he is jumping before he is pushed – along with many other Tory MPs. Whatever his reasons to step down he is obviously not alone with the likes of Teresa May and Dominic Raab also leaving parliament as Britain expects to see a very different political landscape in the next few months.

At the 2019 general election in Wells the result was as follows:

James Heappey, Conservative                 33,336

Tessa Munt, Liberal Democrat                 23,345

Kama McKenzie, Labour                             4,304

Dave Dobbs, Independent                         373

 Susie Quatermass, Motherworld          270

Conservative Majority                                 9,991

Somerset Confidential added these notes:

One of the younger members of the government (Heappey is 43) he is also one of the few members of the government to serve Johnson, Truss and Sunak. He is currently Minister of State for the Armed Forces. He has picked up other titles and rights too in the course of his government career. Appointed to the Privy Council under Liz Truss (for which he is given the title “Right Honourable” for life), he had right to sit in Cabinet too although he lost that right when Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister.

Heappey has not indicated what he intends to do after leaving Parliament. For a man with his contacts, any number of consultancies from the arms industry will no doubt be on offer.

There may still be a Heappey in the next Parliament though. His brother has been selected to stand for the Conservatives in the next General Election in the seat of Bath. That said, the Electoral Calculus poll doesn’t give him a lot of chance, putting incumbent Wera Hobhouse on 56% of the vote and with a 99% chance of winning.

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Axbridge News is edited by Harry Mottram and is published for the interest of himself and fellow residents.

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