'We will have a difficult job to replace Neil Parish' says Conservative councillor and friend

Neil Parish. Ref mhh 48 19TI 0358. Picture: Terry Ife

Neil Parish. Ref mhh 48 19TI 0358. Picture: Terry Ife - Credit: Archant

A friend of disgraced MP Neil Parish claims it will be a ‘difficult job’ to replace him. 

The member for Tiverton and Honiton resigned at the weekend, a day after he was revealed to be the person accused of watching pornography on his phone in the House of Commons. 

Speaking to BBC South West on Saturday, an emotional Mr Parish admitted doing so twice, first whilst looking for tractors and the second time deliberately. He called that occasion a “moment of madness.” 

While reiterating he was trying to be discreet, Mr Parish said what he did “was absolutely totally wrong.” 

“I will have to live with this for the rest of my life. I made a huge terrible mistake and I’m here to tell the world,” he added. 

Following his resignation, a spokesperson for Tiverton & Honiton Conservatives said: “We would like to take this opportunity to thank Neil Parish for his service to our communities over the past twelve years. 

“We support his decision to step down as our member of parliament.” 

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Colin Slade, a fellow Conservative who sits as a district and county councillor, admitted it was “a very stupid thing to do,” but praised Mr Parish for his subsequent comments and time as an MP. 

In an interview with the Telegraph, he said: “Neil has always been very supportive of our constituents, of our local association, of local charities and of me and my family, we know him socially as well as professionally.” 

“I have never had any concerns about his behaviour and I regard Neil as totally truthful. I saw his BBC interview, which was very heartfelt, in which he said he was wrong and he was sorry. I had a conversation with him in which he said very similar things.” 

Mr Slade, who suggested Mr Parish could have been searching for ‘Dominators’ – a type of combine harvester – went on to say: “We are very sad to see him go, he has been an excellent constituency MP for many years and we will have a difficult job to replace him.” 

Local Labour councillor Jake Bonetta said it was “right that Neil Parish has resigned,” saying the “act of gross misconduct within our hallways of power, within the institutions that have governed us for so long, serves only to the detriment of our local democracy.” 

Mr Parish’s resignation triggers a by-election in Tiverton and Honiton – a safe Tory seat up until now with a majority of 24,000 over Labour at the last election.  The Lib Dems came a distant third. 

However recent results at other by-elections suggest it may not be a straightforward defence for the Tories. 

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey has pointed out how they overcame a near-23,000 majority to defeat the Conservatives in North Shropshire last year, in a by-election called following the resignation of Owen Paterson over breaching lobbying rules. 

Despite second-place in the 2019 general election, at council level they struggle to win seats. Mid Devon District Council – based in Tiverton – has no Labour councillors, while neighbouring East Devon District Council has just two. 

It means the Lib Dems, which have historically performed well in the south west, may be considered the likely challengers to the Tories. 

However, the East Devon Alliance, a coalition with 13 councillors on the district council, has also indicated it may stand a candidate in the by-election. 

In a statement, the group said: “Like most people in the Tiverton and Honiton constituency, the Independent East Devon Alliance is shocked by Neil Parish’s actions and believes that he has done the right thing by resigning. 

“The forthcoming by-election is an opportunity to choose an independent-minded, local MP who will stand up for the people of the area and oppose the debasement of public life by the present Conservative government. 

“We will be consulting our members about the best way to achieve this.” 

But Claire Wright, who stood as an independent in East Devon at the 2019 general election and secured 40 per cent of the vote – ultimately losing to Conservative Simon Jupp - has ruled herself out of the contest. 

On Twitter, she announced: “Thank you so much to everyone who has urged me to run in the Tiverton and Honiton by-election. It is clear though that the Lib Dems have the best chance of winning the seat [from the Tories] and I have no wish to split the left of centre vote.” 

The date for the by-election has not yet been set – though it may be held on the same day as another by-election in Wakefield, after former Conservative MP Imran Ahmad Khan today officially resigned following his conviction for sexual assault.