A revolt engineered in Essex

KENNETH Clarke this autumn will attempt for the third time to become leader of the Conservatives. But as Political Editor Graham Dines reports, moves gaining momentum in Essex to throw the contest open to all party members will scupper the chances of the person who is by far the most popular Tory in Britain.

KENNETH Clarke this autumn will attempt for the third time to become leader of the Conservatives. But as Political Editor Graham Dines reports, moves gaining momentum in Essex to throw the contest open to all party members will scupper the chances of the person who is by far the most popular Tory in Britain.

ESSEX is one of the most solid Conservative voting areas in Britain. Even in the dark days of 1997, the majority of the county's MPs were Tory.

And overwhelmingly, Conservative activists and party member are on the right of the party and want no truck with Europe.

Although no figures were ever published, it's likely that Essex Conservatives - and probably those in Suffolk and the rest of East Anglia - voted for Iain Duncan Smith in the 2001 leadership contest, the first time party members have had their say.


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It was not so much that they were voting positively for IDS. They were actually voting against Kenneth Clarke, the man who up until last week makes no apology for being one of the Tories' biggest fans of the European Union and the single currency.

Co-inciding with Ken Clarke's decision to once again enter a leadership contest, there are muttering among the party's rank and file that proposals from current leader Michael Howard to remove the right of ordinary Tory members to have a say in who should be next leader must be resisted

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Mr Howard wants only Tory MPs to make the decision on who should follow him, and it needs a two-thirds majority among the 1,133 Tories - constituency chairmen, the leaders of the voluntary party, members of the Houses of Commons and Lords and the European Parliament - for the rule change to happen.

If it is rejected, the contest will be thrown open to all 300,000 Tory Party members and they are likely to choose the one candidate who is not Kenneth Clarke.

The revolt against the Howard reforms was signalled yesterday in a letter to The Daily Telegraph from six former chairmen and presidents of the National Convention - the voluntary party's ruling body - who say the plans to return the decision to MPs only is undemocratic.

Under the current rules for choosing a leader, MPs will vote on the list of candidates until all but two have been eliminated. Those remaining names are put to a ballot of the membership.

It was how the little known and ultimately disastrous Iain Duncan Smith was chosen. Michael Howard was the only name to emerge among MPs when IDS was sacked in 2003 and so he was elected unopposed.

The anger among party activists at the plan to take away their vote is strongest in Essex. Neil Stock, the Chairman of Essex North Conservative Association is voting against the plans, believing the time has long gone when only MPs should have a say.

He's supported by Denzil Watson, the Chairman of Harwich Conservatives, who said: "Tory activists are trusted with the decision on who should be their parliamentary candidates so why take away from us the right to choose who our leader should be."

John Flack from Great Dunmow - the chairman of the powerful East of England Conservative regional body and a member of the party's Essex management executive -has also voted against the reforms.

"The party is bigger than its MPs. There are just 198 Tory MPs, meaning that more than 400 constituencies will have no say in who the leader should be if the reforms go ahead.

"Party members in Cornwall, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, County Durham and other areas of the country will be denied a vote. It's ludicrous that only one person in Scotland and three in Wales will have a vote.

"I would like to see an electoral college formed so that the voluntary party has a say in choosing the leader."

Leading Essex Tories meet on Saturday to discuss the matter. If they form a united block, it's likely to lead to other Tory chairmen following suit, thus blocking the reforms.

The ill feeling has taken the Tory Party Board - which sanctioned the Howard plans - completely by surprise. There is no option two. If the plans fall, that's it and the current leadership contest rules will be invoked.

To organise a leadership contest could mean the Tories remain in limbo until after Christmas. Nothing could happen until the end of the Tory Party conference in Blackpool in early October, ballots among MPs would be organised in early November, and voting papers sent out to party members during December.

The winner is almost certain to be David Davis. He's the most right wing of the likely contenders and assuming it's a Davis-Clarke run-off, more importantly he is not Kenneth Clarke.

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