Candidates Clash Over Charing Cross and Opposition to Brexit

Issues prove most contentious at Chelsea and Fulham hustings

Candidates at the Chelsea and Fulham hustings
Candidates at the Chelsea and Fulham hustings

June 24, 2024

Sparks flew between the Conservative and Labour Chelsea and Fulham candidates over the Charing Cross Hospital refurbishment and support for Remain during the Brexit referendum at an otherwise well-mannered hustings over the weekend.

Tory Minister for Trade Policy Greg Hands, who has been the MP for Chelsea and Fulham since it was created in 2010, accused his Labour opponent Ben Coleman of failing to partake in the local Remain campaign in 2016 during his closing speech. Cllr Coleman, who is also the Deputy Leader of Hammersmith and Fulham, strongly denied such claims.

The event, which was held in All Saints Church by Putney Bridge, saw the Green’s Mona Crocker and Liberal Democrats’ Blaise Baquiche line up alongside Mr Hands and Cllr Coleman to be grilled by local residents. Moderator Nick Watt, Political Editor at BBC Newsnight, began with a question of his own for each candidate, including whether the ‘cloud’ of the coalition’s broken promises continues to hang over the Lib Dems, and how the Green Party contends with problematic reports about the conduct of some of its candidates.

Cllr Coleman was quizzed on recent comments made by Sir Keir Starmer that he ‘never expected’ to win the 2019 election under former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Telling the audience Mr Corbyn may have been leader of the party but failed to take people with him during his tenure, Cllr Coleman described Sir Keir’s job as ‘near impossible’, adding the former Director of Public Prosecutions is an ‘extraordinary man’ who has positively changed Labour.

Mr Hands meanwhile was asked about the investigation by the Gambling Commission into an unknown number of Conservative Party officials, amid reports of bets being placed on the election date. Agreeing it is not a good look, Mr Hands said if it is found that insider trading had been taking place, “there should be really significant punishments given to all those individuals if it is proven”.

One question put to candidates from the floor came from a local midwife, who raised concerns about burnt-out colleagues struggling with stress, mental health issues and a host of other afflictions. Mr Hands, while pointing to ‘record funding’ into the NHS by the Government, acknowledged this was ‘not the whole story’, with waiting lists needing to come down further. Mr Baquiche specifically mentioned the nearby Charing Cross Hospital and how its poor state left many visitors ‘in horror’, adding the Liberal Democrats have promised to deliver funding ‘every year’.

Ms Crocker said the Green Party had committed a £20 billion funding project to rebuild all dilapidated buildings in the NHS, and defended the British healthcare model against the part-privatisation schemes employed in countries such as France. “They also pay in 35 per cent on top of…national insurance, they pay a lot more than we do here, and then they pay 35 per cent privately,” she said. “I don’t think it’s an ideal system, and I think if we spend more money and reinvest in the NHS, we’ve got a lot of the backlog to get the NHS back to what it was.”

The ongoing saga of Charing Cross Hospital was also raised by Cllr Coleman, who queried Mr Hands’ claim that a ‘floor-by-floor refurbishment’ of the provision has been secured. He added he has been pressing the Labour Party for a commitment to the hospital, and that a promise was made by Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting during a recent visit.

A question which appeared to largely unite the four candidates was on Europe, and how little it has featured so far in most of the Party’s campaigns. The international credentials of the candidates, with each of them having lived abroad, were referenced on several occasions during the event, and came to the fore here.

All said they opposed Brexit, and Mr Hands, who led the Chelsea and Fulham Remain campaign, referenced his role as Trade Minister as an instance of him working to improve relations with his European counterparts. Mr Baquiche accused Sir Keir of ‘speaking with two sides of his face’ on Europe and claimed Labour has not changed its stance since Mr Corbyn’s leadership, while Ms Crocker took the Conservatives to task, telling the room, “Our government has just been squabbling between itself for years and years and years and not really been doing its job.”

On housing, all four candidates recognised the crisis facing both the constituency and the country as a whole, though with ranging solutions. Mr Hands said more homes are undoubtedly required, though reiterated the Government’s stance on not building on the green belt. Instead, he referenced the amount of brownfield land available, in particular that owned by Transport for London (TfL), while also accusing the Hammersmith and Fulham Labour council for holding up the Earls Court development scheme.

This latter point in particular was contested by Cllr Coleman, who said the project as it was conceived prior to Labour taking the council in 2014 would have resulted in whole estates being evicted. The delays, he said, were because the local authority was ‘saving people’s homes’.

Cllr Coleman added Labour nationally has plans for more house building, including construction on the ‘grey belt’, and support for renters, such as ending Section 21 no-fault evictions.

The Green Party’s policies, Ms Crocker said, include the building of 150,000 social houses a year, while she also mentioned potential legislation regarding the number of empty homes in the capital. Mr Baquiche meanwhile attacked former Prime Minister Liz Truss’s time in office and the impact that had on prices, and referenced his younger age as a point of difference with the other candidates present.

Questions on the Government’s Rwanda scheme and Labour’s planned removal of private schools’ VAT exemption were also among those aired, though it was during the summing up that the first real point of conflict arose. Mr Hands told the room Cllr Coleman did not take part in the Chelsea and Fulham Remain campaign in 2016, leading to Cllr Coleman refuting the claims as ‘totally untrue’.

Mr Hands further reiterated his claim that the Government had committed to a ‘floor-by-floor’ refurbishment of Charing Cross Hospital, adding the scheme had been delayed by the pandemic. Cries of ‘shame’ ensued from some audience members, who Mr Hands subsequently described as ‘some of the Labour people down the front’.

The event ended with a series of interventions by Mr Watt and Cllr Coleman accusing the Tory candidate of being ‘two-faced on Charing Cross’, a fiery end to a typically mild-mannered and informative hustings.

Full list of Chelsea and Fulham candidates:

Blaise Baquiche – Liberal Democrats
Ben Coleman – Labour
Mona Crocker – Green Party
Anthony Goodwin – Reform UK
Greg Hands – Conservatives
Sabi Patwary – Workers Party
David Poulden – Heritage Party

Ben Lynch – Local Democracy Reporter