Shropshire Star

North Shropshire's Reform candidate pledges to be thorn in Government's side

In 2004, a young Conservative Party member from Shropshire was asked by the Daily Telegraph what she thought of her first party conference.

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Reform UK election candidate Kirsty Walmsley at Oswestry

"There's a really good atmosphere," said 22-year-old Kirsty Barrow, at the time one of the youngest councillors in England.

And there was one young up-and-coming MP from Oxfordshire who particularly captured her imagination.

"I particularly enjoyed the debate on Tuesday, Boris Johnson was great," she said.

It is fair to say that both of their lives have changed over the past 17 years. Mr Johnson, now the Prime Minister, faces the headache of a by-election in North Shropshire, a problem that many say is of Mr Johnson's own making.

And the young councillor, now Kirsty Walmsley, is now pledging to become "a thorn in the Government's side" if she is successful in the forthcoming by-election.

Mrs Walmsley, who was briefly employed as a caseworker by long-serving Tory MP Owen Paterson, is bidding to succeed him as the candidate for the Reform UK Party.

Reform UK is the revamped Brexit Party, which had been formed in 2019 by ex-Ukip leader Nigel Farage at the height of Theresa May's travails over Europe.

She says one of the reasons she has chosen to stand for the party is that it has a policy where its leader would not tell MPs how to vote.

"Reform UK is the only party in the country not to have a whipping policy, which means I will never be coerced to vote along party lines," she says.

"For me that's a fundamental part of being elected to parliament is to represent the people of my constituency."

Reform UK election candidate Kirsty Walmsley at Oswestry

Reform UK's opponents, of course, would point out that it is easy to have such a policy when you don't have any MPs to whip.

Mrs Walmsley, who grew up in Oswestry, says she first developed an interest in politics when she started working in the family carpet shop after leaving school.

"People just dropped in and wanted to talk about their problems, and when the opportunity of an election came up, I felt compelled to try and stand up for people," she says.

Mrs Walmsley, who was just 21 at the time, says she never expected to be elected for the council, but quickly found that local government was not what she was expecting.

"It was very officer led, I found that unelected officers were driving policy rather than elected representatives, which I didn't think was very democratic," she says.

Mrs Walmsley later went to work for three different MPs, including Mr Paterson and the Cities of London and Westminster MP Mark Field, but said she felt similar frustrations.

She then took a break from politics to raise her family, working for a time as office manager at Woodside Primary School in Oswestry, before becoming a full-time mother.

"Being a stay-at-home mother, or indeed all mothers, is a very under-rated role in society, it's very hard work," she says.

While she decided to step away from politics for several years, her father Keith Barrow became leader of Shropshire Council. She joined the Brexit Party shortly after it was formed with what she saw as a betrayal of voters as Mrs May's attempts to get her Brexit deal through parliament floundered. But the party withdrew its candidates from hundreds of Conservative-held seats shortly before the 2019 General Election.

Reform UK election candidate Kirsty Walmsley with party leader Richard Tice, at Oswestry

"That decision was for the greater good of getting Brexit done, whether it was right or wrong, that was the aim of it," says Mrs Walmsley.

She is critical of the Conservatives in their selection of Birmingham-born Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst to fight the seat.

"Before the Conservative Party announced their candidate, I feared they would push somebody on us who didn't know the area," she says.

"It's a case of them taking North Shropshire for granted, they think they can put anybody in it and they will vote for them. But North Shropshire is where my roots lie, I was born in Oswestry and was brought up there."

Like most of the candidates, Mrs Walmsley identifies health as being her top priority, and GP services in particular, although her solutions are somewhat more radical than those of the main parties.

"We are the only party to offer a zero-waiting list policy," she says. "We think this is achievable within 18 months."

Mrs Walmsley believes this could be achieved by offering free vouchers for private healthcare to anyone who cannot get an appointment to see their GP with three days. Similar offers would be available to those who have to wait more than weeks to see a consultant, and nine weeks for an operation.

"When you see a GP, the Government pay money to that GP practice," she says. "All we are doing is giving the patient the power to go elsewhere."

Mrs Walmsley is also calling for more support for independent high-street retailers. Her party proposes the abolition of business rates for independent retailers, finance by a three per cent levy on all online purchases.

"One of the things I really love about North Shropshire is that each of the towns has its unique character, with so many individual independent businesses," she says.

Of course, it is one thing having all these policies, but as a sole Reform UK MP in a parliament dominated by the established parties, what chance would she have of implementing any of this?

"I would rather be a big cog in a small wheel representing North Shropshire, than a small cog in a party-political machine," she says.

"If I'm elected I will be a thorn in the side of this Government.

"Boris Johnson has a certain amount of popularity because of his personality, but that doesn't mean he is good at running the country."