Lee Anderson: new Tory deputy chair is one-man controversy machine

<span>Photograph: PjrNews/Alamy</span>
Photograph: PjrNews/Alamy

While Rishi Sunak’s decision to appoint Lee Anderson as the Conservative party deputy chair will doubtless cheer a number of Anderson’s “red wall” colleagues, it is also fair to say at least some fellow Tory MPs will have their head in their hands at the news.

The political logic is obvious. The new party chair, Greg Hands, is the long-serving MP for a central London constituency and a former banker. Anderson, who began his working life as a miner, took his Nottinghamshire constituency of Ashfield from Labour in 2019.

The worries about Anderson are less what he represents than what he is: a one-man controversy machine, whose trenchant views on the world are presented as unvarnished common sense but are seen by sceptics as performative and unnecessarily divisive.

A former Labour councillor and office worker for Gloria De Piero, the Labour MP he replaced in Ashfield, Anderson achieved notoriety even before entering parliament with a Facebook video diatribe about nuisance tenants on a local housing estate.

These, Anderson opined, should be made to live “in a tent in the middle of a field” and pick vegetables for 12 hours a day before a cold shower.

Subsequently trailed by a camera crew around his constituency, Anderson won support for these views from a man on the doorstep – but his microphone revealed the would-be MP had apparently phoned the man in advance, telling him to “make out you know who I am, that you know I’m the candidate but not that you are a friend”.

An enthusiastic culture warrior, Anderson became the subject of some internet mockery after pledging to boycott televised matches by the England men’s football team at the 2021 Euros tournament because players took the knee before matches.

To many critics, including numerous opposition MPs, Anderson is known as “30p Lee” for another outspoken intervention, in which he argued that food bank users did not understand how to budget, and that entire, nutritious meals could be cooked for 30p a time.

Reiterating the point, Anderson tweeted the example of his assistant, who he said could manage fine on a modest salary in London. Others noted that the assistant was helped by the fact she was single, without dependants and lived in a shared property.

Sunak’s team may argue that such comments mainly anger those who would be unlikely to support the party anyway, and help to fire up the more traditionalist activist base.

Others would point to two pitfalls. One is the ample evidence that presenting the Tory party in an Anderson-filtered light repels many of the more moderate Conservative voters in places where the party faces an increasingly strong challenge from the Liberal Democrats.

The second is that Anderson has form for directing his invective at all quarters – including the government. It is little more than a week ago that leaked messages from a Conservative MPs’ WhatsApp group showed Anderson castigating Sunak and his ministers for failing to robustly tackle small boats crossing the Channel.

“It’s like the band on the Titanic. Playing the same tune and ignoring the obvious,” he told the Common Sense Group of MPs, adding that any civil servants who obstructed efforts to reduce migration should be seen as having committed “treason”.

One of the usual roles of a party deputy chair is to go on the media and promote the government. If Anderson is trusted to do this – by no means certain – it will definitely not be boring. Many Conservative MPs worry it will also end badly, and quickly.