THE Dean of St Edmundsbury Cathedral, the Very Revd Frances
Ward, became embroiled in a political storm this week, after she
wrote a letter urging the local Conservative MP to resign because
he had assaulted his former partner.
David Ruffley, MP for Bury St Edmunds, was arrested by police at
a house in central London in March, and later accepted a caution
for common assault. After more than a week of calls for his
resignation, Mr Ruffley said on Monday evening that he would retire
at the next election.
In a letter to the Conservative Party, he said that while he
considered the matter closed, since he had apologised, the
"protracted media debate" was a distraction. In a statement two
weeks ago, Mr Ruffley admitted that there had been an "incident"
involving his former partner, resulting in "inappropriate action on
my part, which I deeply regret".
Demands for his resignation increased, however, after it emerged
that Dean Ward, who is a friend of Mr Ruffley's former partner, had
written to him accusing him of downplaying the altercation, and
In the letter, Dean Ward wrote: "You tried to convince me that .
. . there was blame on both sides. When I visited [Mr Ruffley's
former partner] in March, a day or so after the event, and went to
hug her . . . she winced in obvious pain.
"She told me, as a friend and her priest, of the events of the
evening that had led to your arrest, and how frightened she had
been of your rage and violent behaviour. . . I cannot let you try
to tell me that it was only a 'little local incident', or that she
was at fault."
The Dean's letter ends with her suggesting that Mr Ruffley seek
professional help for his "health and well-being", and that he
considerhis position as MP for Bury St Edmunds. The letter was also
sent to the Chief Whip Michael Gove, the acting Bishop of St
Edmundsbury& Ipswich, the Rt Revd David Thompson, and the Chief
Constable of Suffolk Constabulary, among others.
After the publication of the letter, Dean Ward issued a
statement that confirmed that the leaked letter was accurate, and
that she had nothing further to say.
In his first statement, Mr Ruffley said that he had apologised
to his former partner, and that the matter had been dealt with by
the police at the time. "I wish to stress that I would never
condone domestic violence under any circumstances," he said.
The local Conservative Party brought forward its annual meeting
from September to 31 July to allow its members to discuss the
issue. Senior Tory figures in Suffolk had also criticised Mr
Ruffley; they included the county's police and crime commissioner,
Tim Passmore, who said that Mr Ruffley's behaviour was
"In my opinion there cannot and must not be any hiding-place for
the perpetrators of such brutal crimes," he said in a statement two
weeks ago. Local anti-domestic-violence charities had also called
for Mr Ruffley's resignation, and an online petition on the same
subject had gathered tens of thousands of signatures.
One member of the local Conservative association, Bernard
Sergeant, told the BBC's Jeremy Vine Show on Monday,
however, that most domestic issues behind closed doors were "six of
one and half-a-dozen of the other". "Nobody really knows what went
on. I'm surprised that the Dean should take this situation and
publicly become judgemental."
When asked if he would be happy having a man who had beaten up
his girlfriend as an MP, Mr Sergeant replied: "Well, why not? There
are very few people in life who havenot done something that they
subsequently regret. They shouldn't vilify the man."
Despite some backing from his local association, however, Mr
Ruffley said he would reluctantly resign next year. His decision
not to stand down until the 2015 election means that the
Conservatives do not have to fight a by-election. Bury St Edmunds
is a safe seat, Mr Ruffley holding a majority of 12,380.