Turnip Taliban go to war

Norfolk Tories are set to defy David Cameron over the selection of a candidate. Political editor GRAHAM DINES examines the autonomy of `the Turnip Taliban' as the modernisers get tough.

Graham Dines

Norfolk Tories are set to defy David Cameron over the selection of a candidate. Political editor GRAHAM DINES examines the autonomy of `the Turnip Taliban' as the modernisers get tough.

ELIZABETH Truss's crime was not her 18 month-long fling with married Conservative MP Mark Field but the fact that she omitted to include it on the CV she presented to Norfolk South-West Tories who were selecting a new parliamentary candidate.

Ms Truss is one of the stars on David Cameron's list of people he wants to see in the House of Commons next. This A-list of celebrities and “nice” Conservatives is thrust at every constituency party as they look to replace sitting MPs who are not seeking re-election next year.

Cameron even went as far as saying that he would impose all-women short-lists on local parties if they would not play ball and choose a thrusting, female career politician for their vacancy.

Labour has had all-women shortlists for a while. How such positive discrimination can be lawful is a matter which has yet to be tested in the courts - aggrieved males probably don't want to rock the boat in case they are given the Mark of Cain by Harriet Harman.,

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However, Cameron backtracked on all-women lists barely 10 days after calling for them. Even so, Cameron has stuck his neck out in supporting Ms Truss against what many Tory modernisers chatting away in Notting Hill believe are the dinosaurs of a long dead Tory age.

Ms Truss was short-listed by Norfolk South-West Tories and after a selection meeting attended by more than 100 party members, she won comfortably the nomination.

Within 24 hours, the Mail of Sunday revealed details of her affair with Cities of London & Westminster MP Mark Field.

Local Tories were beside themselves with fury. They said they knew nothing about this tryst - even though it has been common knowledge on the Internet for more than three years and had previously been reported in the media - and an emergency meeting of the executive was held to ask Ms Truss to explain herself.

Last week, she attempted to do just that. Asked why she hadn't told them of her past, she replied she did not think it was relevant.

A typical Notting Hill response. In the 21st century, where a third of marriages break down and where extra-marital flings barely raise eyebrows, how dare The Turnip Taliban - the cruel name given by the modernisers to the Norfolk Tories - discard a wonderful candidate destined for great things in Cameron's government.

Is there really a problem?

A person's past sexual activities really are no big deal. It might be a different matter if she was still cavorting with a married man, but she herself is married with children and has received the Cameron seal of approval.

If people were required to name their previous sexual partners when applying for a job, it might take up many pages as well as breaching a person's human rights by being included in someone else's trophy list.

Norfolk South-West Tories, seemingly determined to make a stand for morals and decency, could well find themselves being suspended - the equivalent of special measures in a school.

Conservative Central Office would draw up a short-list - even delivering a real smack in the mouth by including only women - and then impose the candidate on the constituency.

Such interference is causing apoplexy in the constituency, which stretches from the Suffolk border near Thetford to Downham Market, with Swaffham at its heart.

In short, Norfolk South-West could be an unlikely Tory loss at the general election.

Sir Jeremy Bagge, a member of the Tory association and a former high sheriff of Norfolk, says: “I feel totally betrayed by Conservative Central Office.

“If they suspend the association, we can disassociate from the Conservative Party and choose an independent.

“We will not be dictated to.”

If the local party is suspended, there will be no-one to campaign on the candidate's behalf, no-one to stuff envelopes, no-one to run the committee rooms

The need for a new candidate follows the decision of Christopher Fraser to stand down, after just one term, over the expenses row at Westminster. Ironically, he replaced Gillian Shephard, one of the grande dames of the Conservative Party. who did much to advance the cause of women candidates.

Tim Montgomerie, editor of ConservativeHome website for activists, is in the vanguard of the Cameron modernising project.

“Norfolk South West made an inspired decision to select Liz. She is an innovative thinker and long-time Conservative. Her work at the Reform think tank is of the highest quality.

“All the information about her private life is in the public domain. Nothing was hidden.

“ConservativeHome will always defend the grassroots. The average Conservative member is decent and public-spirited but Norfolk South-West” Tories are stretching patience to breaking point.

Louise Bagshawe, the best selling author and Tory “A” lister who tried for the nomination in 2005 and has now been selected to fight Corby in Northamptonshire, said:

“Norfolk South-West's executive has damaged the reputation of our national party. They have damaged all the work that David Cameron and many other forward-thinking associations round the country have done to show how we have changed, selecting candidates from a broad base, women as well as men.”

At the moment, it is difficult to see how the stand-off can be resolved, unless Ms Truss stands down or the local party swallows its pride and accepts her.

Failing either of these, Central Office will be forced to intervene.