Cameron's speed may fuel resentment

IT'S been a bizarre nine days for David Cameron. He had a major row with the Speaker, the celebrated `A' list of priority candidates ran into controversy in Essex, an Essex MP was axed as Tory vice-chairman and removed from overseeing the list, and party headquarters blundered over a regional visit by the leader to East Anglia.

By Graham Dines

IT'S been a bizarre nine days for David Cameron. He had a major row with the Speaker, the celebrated `A' list of priority candidates ran into controversy in Essex, an Essex MP was axed as Tory vice-chairman and removed from overseeing the list, and party headquarters blundered over a regional visit by the leader to East Anglia.

DAVID Cameron's elite list of candidates - those favoured men and women propelled to the top of the pecking order because the Tory leader wants more MPs who fit into his metrosexual vision of a political Utopia - may not be exactly coming off the rails, but it certainly ran into unwelcome controversy in Witham.

When Mr Cameron - who was yesterday on a swing through the National Health Service deficit nightmare in Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds and Huntingdon - became leader, he vowed to shake up the traditional Tory image of old fogies, retired military officers, and women wearing twin sets, pearls and large flowery hats. The Tories must be “fit for purpose” in the 21st century and reflect the UK as it is today and not what it was like in Victoria times.

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The problem for Mr Cameron is that most of these people whom he would like to see pensioned off are actually the backbone of the voluntary party, without whom envelopes would not be addressed, leaflets stuffed through letter boxes, and funds raised at coffee mornings and whist drives.

And many of them don't like being told by Conservative Central Office just what types of candidate the party hierarchy think they should choose as MPs.

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It's all very well Mr Cameron saying he wants more gay men, lesbians, Asians, blacks, women, and thrusting young men to be MPs, but if the activists don't want them, there is little that can be done.

Conservative associations are proud of their independence. They have the right to draw up a shortlist of candidates and choose who they want to represent them at the election - and usually they choose a married man with 2.4 children. They don't want candidates parachuted in by Central Office.

Many Conservative associations have meekly followed orders and chosen some of the `A' list stars, but others have dug their heels in and said that at the very least, they want local names to be considered.

Analysis by of candidates selected so far by the Tories for the next election shows that 36.1% are women and only 3.3% are of Asian and black descent.

Mr Cameron put Essex North MP Bernard Jenkin in charge of the `A' list, but this week he was sacked as party vice-chairman for candidates in a major reshuffle of the junior ranks of the shadow cabinet.

It coincided with - but we are assured not as a result of - an extraordinary row erupting over the shortlist for the new parliamentary seat of Witham. One Asian aspirant, Ali Miraj, was not interviewed and he lashed out, denouncing the party's failure to consider ethnic candidates and claiming Mr Jenkin and two other Tory MPs in Essex - Brooks Newmark (Braintree) and John Whittingdale (Maldon & Chelmsford East) - told him he had no chance in Witham because he was white.

Mr Miraj said despite the Cameron promise to make Tory MPs more representative of UK society, only while middle-class men were being chosen for the best seats.

Labour gleefully pointed out that Witham proved that the Tory Party had not changed at all. Criticising Mr Jenkin's remarks - which the Essex North MP said he did not recall making - Labour Party chairman Hazel Blears turned the knife. “It is incredible that candidates in the Conservative Party are being given this message by the man David Cameron has appointed to improve the representative nature of Tory candidates and the fairness of the selection procedure.

“The Tories haven't changed.”

Fair? It has to be pointed out that Tories in Witham could confound everybody and select Priti Patel, an Asian woman who has made it through to the last seven left standing as the selection process gathers apace.

But local constituency associations of all three main parties in East Anglia hardly have a good record when it comes to promoting women and minority ethic candidates for winnable seats. There are 38 MPs in Suffolk, Essex, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire. At the last election, only two women were elected - Eleanor Laing (Conservative, Epping Forest) and Angela Smith (Labour, Basildon), and only one of minority ethnic extraction, Shailesh Vara (Tory, Cambridgeshire North West).

As yet, none of the parties in the region have chosen a female, Asian or black candidate in a winnable seat for the next election.

While I have every sympathy for Mr Jenkin, who has worked tirelessly to ensure that constituencies understand the need for the `A' list, I think he was ill-advised to appear last week on the new Internet political television channel 18 Doughty Street, when at the time he was still a party deputy chairman, and suggest his leader was wrong to complain at the Speaker's refusal to question the Prime Minister in the Commons on whom he would like to succeed him.

Mr Cameron challenged the ruling, but Mr Jenkin said on the Internet channel: “The Speaker was absolutely right. If we don't accept what the Speaker says, we're all done for. I really think there's a moral obligation on every member of the House of Commons to uphold the Speaker, otherwise we're heading for chaos.”

These remarks were soon flashed around the Internet by Labour bloggers as a sign of a major split in the Tory Party over its leader's tactics and sense of purpose.

Mr Cameron yesterday visited Ipswich Hospital. Although it was a follow-up to the Tories' successful campaign against “Labour's health cuts,” the timing was actually quite extraordinary.

Yes, he wanted to hear for himself how the hospital had landed up more than £24m in deficit. But Ipswich Tories choose a parliamentary candidate in less than a month. How much more sensible it would have been had he delayed his visit until the New Year so he could be accompanied by the candidate, who would have been given the oxygen of publicity.

It seems that the branch of Central Office which knows where candidates have been picked does not communicate with the leader's office to co-ordinate regional visits.

It could have been worse. A visit to Colchester General Hospital, where a multi million pound PFI project has been cancelled, was also planned for yesterday but was aborted. With Witham and Colchester due to pick their candidates before Christmas, Mr Cameron would have looked remarkably naked if he had not been accompanied by the men or women he hopes will win the seats.

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