With a battle bus and a sharp haircut, Reform UK candidate could decide who wins Sutton Coldfield

Deeply tanned, tall and something of a Lee Anderson lookalike, Mark Hoath cuts a dash as he strides into the Old School House pub in Mere Green. He grins when I remark on his resemblance to Anderson, the former Tory turned Reform’s first MP, and clearly am not the first to say so, though one supporter with him quickly adds ‘but better looking’.

Outside in the car park, his own battlebus is parked up, a VW campervan with Vote Reform UK stickers on its bonnet and doors. “It’s got a fridge!” he jokes, in reference to Angela Rayner’s enthusiasm for the Labour battlebus accessory. “More a battle caravenette isn’t it?” teases LibDem candidate John Sweeney later in the day when we meet. There’s a lot of ribbing like this going on in the Sutton Coldfield election battle, but it’s all deadly serious.

Hoath and Sweeney, along with Green candidate Ben Auton and Workers Party’s Wajad Burkey, could together make or break the election for Labour or Conservative, if things are as tight as pollsters are currently predicting.

READ MORE: Labour pledge to create Sutton Coldfield Citizens’ Senate and new vision for town

The Sutton Coldfield constituency is the 78th safest Conservative seat in the country, with Mitchell holding a 19,272 majority, so should be no contest, even given the national party’s travails. In 2019 Mitchell polled 31,604 votes compared to Labour’s 12,332. In third were the Lib Dems with 6,358.

But recent polls predict the seat could become part of the Birmingham red wall, as a result of a Labour landslide across the country. Mitchell describes the polls as ‘nonsense’ and predicts he will increase his majority, not lose it.

But in this unpredictable election, anything could happen. Hoath was a Conservative for years, but in the run up to the Leave vote in 2016 he looked to switch allegiance. He joined the Brexit Party and was due to stand in the 2019 election against Mitchell but reluctantly withdrew under the orders of party leader Nigel Farage as part of an electoral deal with the Conservatives. Now he’s all in with ReformUK, and delighted Farage is back at the helm.

Mark Hoath, with the Reform UK Sutton 'battlebus'
Mark Hoath, with the Reform UK Sutton ‘battlebus’

“I’m disillusioned with the state of Sutton Coldfield itself, the magistrates court has gone, the police station looks like going, and the town centre is declining badly. Andrew Mitchell says he’s doing a lot but nothing has happened. He has been in post 23 years while the centre has declined,” says Hoath.

“People are struggling due to the cost of living, high taxes and high energy bills. Sutton is dressed up as an affluent area, but I can assure you there are a lot of people struggling, who have been forgotten. Look at Falcon Lodge, people there have been hit hard…I believe in free enterprise and business, to help the small businesses in this constituency, and in helping the less well off.”

He added: “I’m a Brexiteer, and the Conservatives have screwed up Brexit – we would fix it.” He’s got beef with the former sitting MP Mitchell, who had earlier told BirminghamLive he didn’t recognise the name of the Reform UK candidate, nor even know what gender he was. Hoath laughs when I tell him of Mitchell’s apparent disinterest. “I was out supporting his campaigns, for several years actually. So either he genuinely doesn’t remember me, which says a lot about the type of leader he is, or he is pretending because he is worried.”

Like other Tory candidates, Mitchell is peddling the line that a vote for Reform UK will let in a Labour government. Hoath doesn’t see it like that. “The game is up. The Conservatives have lost already, it’s pretty clear Labour will form the next Government. Voting for the Conservatives is the wasted vote. Voting for Reform UK sends a very clear message to both parties that people want change.”

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Hoath takes every question in his stride, as befits a regular on GB News. He has an immediate riposte to any suggestion that his party is racist. “Look, if I was a racist, I would not have an Indian wife and two mixed-parent children.

“My wife’s family came over as immigrants. I absolutely don’t demonise immigrants – the people I demonise are the politicians who have messed this up. It angers me when Reform UK is assumed to be a racist party, it’s nonsense.

“We are challenging the status quo and questioning how things have ended up that we are letting in nearly 700,000 people more into the country than leave, and half of them don’t contribute. That must stop. That is not being far right, that is just common sense.”

He reveals he recently discovered a volunteer support was a former member of the British National Party (BNP). “Within five minutes he was kicked out, all his channels shut down, we refunded his membership and he was gone.” He contrasts that with the time taken by mainstream parties to deal with racism complaints about members, sometimes taking months.

Lib Dem candidate John Sweeney's X/Twitter profile features him interviewing Vladimir Putin
Lib Dem candidate John Sweeney’s X/Twitter profile features him interviewing Vladimir Putin

He denies a claim that he is a pandemic denier or anti vaxxer – a claim levelled at him, he says, after he reposted a sceptical scientist on social media. He says he would not take another Covid vaccine because he fell ill after getting his second Covid shot, but says that’s a personal stance.

On Gaza, he says: “I am not interested in Gaza v Israel as an election issue, it is a British general election and it’s important we don’t cloud it with stuff going on thousands of miles away when we have so many problems in our own country.”

On LGBT and transgender issues, Hoath says he is in tandem with his party’s ‘contract with voters’ that vows to ban “transgender ideology” in primary and secondary schools. “There are two sexes and two genders,” the policy declares. “It is a dangerous safeguarding issue to confuse children by suggesting otherwise… no gender questioning, social transitioning or pronoun swapping, and inform parents of under-16s about their children’s life decisions. Schools must have single-sex facilities.”

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Says Hoath: “We should not be teaching young children about sex education at all. One of my supporters has a daughter who is what in the past would be called a tomboy, but the problem is that some of these zealots would get hold of her and say do you think you might be a boy not a girl? That is not right.”

He claims he was recently canvassing parents outside Arthur Terry school and was asked to move along by a member of staff because of complaints. He said: “I was handing out leaflets saying nothing contentious – but I was also highlighting concerns that primary school children are being taught transgender ideology. The majority of parents I spoke to agreed.”

He said he would devote his time as MP to ‘doing the job, 100% of my time.” He claims Mitchell, until being back in a senior ministerial role that required him to forego some private roles, earned over £300,000 in three years from consultancy work and ‘that is not right for Sutton Coldfield’.

FACT CHECK: BirminghamLive’s calculations of Mitchell’s earnings outside politics, as listed on the gov.uk website, show earnings of around £183,000 a year up to 2022, including previous roles with Investec, Ernst and Young, Montrose Associates, Southbridge Bank (based in Rwanda), Arch Emerging Partners Ltd, and Kingsley Capital Partners; along with shares in Himalayan Ventures Ltd. His current declared interests feature shares valued at more than £70,000 with Equinox International Holdings Limited that are held and managed by Kingsley Capital Partners. On becoming a front bench minister (he deputises for Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron in the House of Commons) he relinquished several roles.

John Sweeney, Lib Dems

Sutton Coldfield must seem a bit, well, tame, for investigative journalist and raconteur John Sweeney. He’s had a career-long reputation for derring do and for going where other journalists don’t dare in a career with the BBC at Panorama and Newsnight, and since as a freelance. He has exposed mass graves in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, corruption inside the scientology community, and gone undercover in North Korea. He’s written about Vladimir Putin’s wars and oligarch links, as well as confronting the Russian president himself with his findings. He won awards for helping secure the release of three women wrongly convicted over baby deaths.

One expose that landed him in trouble involved Tommy Robinson, whose supporters ‘counter exposed’ Sweeney for using racist and homophobic language while being secretly filmed in a pub. He also proclaimed IRA chief Martin McGuiness as a political hero, though went on to say he commended him for giving up the gun and helping broker peace in Northern Ireland. He says he apologised at the time and adds now: “It is a cliche I know but I have a lot of gay friends and friends of all ethnicities.” Panorama issued a statement apologising on Sweeney’s behalf for his “offensive and inappropriate” comments and the episode on Robinson was never aired as a result.

What’s he doing here then, in a place where his connections are few? Sweeney, chosen by the Lib Dems to fight this seat far from his home, pulls on his pint, and says he wants to ‘make a difference’. In his trademark beanie hat, he says he is standing to highlight the failures of Labour run Birmingham City Council, particularly its repeated inability to follow the equal pay Act that has led to masses of financially crippling pay claims, and to expose Conservative Andrew Mitchell for ‘failing to put residents first’.

He says: “I’m running to be the MP for Sutton Coldfield for voters fed up with a clapped out Tory government and a bankrupt Labour Brum council that is raising council tax by 21%. The shopping arcade in Sutton Coldfield is full of empty shops so we’re losing council tax revenue. Down the road, there’s a new Amazon warehouse. I will campaign for an online sales tax of 1%, and we use that money to invest in our community. Vote for me and I will fight for you.”

He admits he is a ‘complete rookie’ when it comes to running political campaigns. He has injected some humour into proceedings – one of his policy pledges is to rewild Sutton Park by reintroducing otter, beavers and red deer and his homemade campaign video about it is worth a view.

He’s having to hobble around the constituency with a stick after falling on black ice while covering the Ukraine war, returning to the UK just prior to the election being called. Sweeney rejects any calls for him to stand aside to avoid splitting the Labour vote. “I believe strongly in democracy and it’s beautiful that in this country we have a free vote, and it’s vital I provide an alternative option. The Lib Dems are also offering something different to any other party.”

Ben Auton, Green Party

An environmental scientist working in the construction industry, Auton is using his platform to highlight pollution and poor regulations, to call for an end to ‘wasteful’ privatisation in the NHS and to expand social care. “We will give people the tools and the hope to build a sustainable future we can all thrive in,” he says. His campaign can be followed on Facebook here

Wajad Burkey, Workers Party of GB

He is standing on the George Galloway-led party’s 10 point plan. He says he is deeply committed to the principles of social justice, workers’ rights, and public ownership. His campaign website is here.

Birmingham Live – Sutton Park