Witham Tories in row over candidates

WITHAM Conservatives have been plunged into controversy after a rejected minority ethnic candidate for the safe seat said that three Essex MPs had told him before the selection that he had no chance because he wasn't white.

By Graham Dines

CONSERVATIVES have been plunged into controversy after a rejected Asian candidate for a safe seat claimed that three Essex MPs had told him before the selection that he had no chance because he wasn't white.

Ali Miraj, who fought Watford at the last General Election and who was one of 90 people to apply to become the Tory candidate in Witham, lashed out at the party's attitude, despite leader David Cameron's pledge that more female, gay and ethnic minority candidates would be chosen to fight winnable seats.

Mr Miraj, a member of the Tories celebrated 'A' list, was one of 18 candidates given preliminary interviews over the weekend.

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He claims on his internet site that Brooks Newmark (MP for Braintree), John Whittingdale (Maldon & Chelmsford East) and Bernard Jenkin (Essex North and until yesterday party vice-chairman in charge of candidates) had all wished him luck but added they would be “shocked” if Witham did not choose a while middle-aged man.

“It is evident that despite his (Cameron's) huge efforts to change the party's attitude to candidate selection, there is a mountain to climb,” says Mr Miraj.

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“What is gradually becoming clear is not that the peak may never be assailable, but that some, including myself, may out of frustration, opt to abandon the ascent itself.”

Over the weekend, Tory activists in the new seat created by the Boundary Commission drew up a short list of seven names which will be considered by the executive on Friday. It will then draw up a final list of four names, who will be interviewed by all local party members.

The seven who have made it to the next stage are: Geoffrey Van Orden, Euro MP for the East of England; James Brokenshire, shadow minister for home affairs and MP for Hornchurch whose seat disappears at the next election because of boundary changes; Pritti Patel, former media officer to William Hague; John Glen, head of the Conservative Party's Research Department; Kit Malthouse, a Westminster city councillor; Julia Manning, a health care campaigner; and Charlie Elphick, who contested St Albans at the 2001 election.

Mr Jenkin - who was yesterday sacked from his job in charge of candidates and returns to the backbenchers - said he did not recall having a conversation with Mr Miraj, but added: “The fact that Pritti Patel, a minority ethnic woman, has made it through to the next stage of the Witham selection is proof that Mr Miraj's comments are wide of the mark.”

Mr Newmark declined to be drawn on Mr Miraj's comments but praised him as a “quality candidate who will someday get a seat”.

But Hazel Blears, chairman of the Labour Party, said: “David Cameron has said that the test of whether the Conservative Party has changed lay in the candidates it selects. The comments from a Tory 'A' list candidate, and the message he appears to have been given by the Tory high command, is yet further evidence that it is a test that the Tories are failing.

“The truth is that, despite the public relations and the warm words, the Conservative Party has not changed.”

n Mr Jenkin has been removed from the Tory leader's top team amid mounting criticism of the A-list initiative to get more women and ethnic minority candidates into winnable constituencies.

Mr Cameron's spokesman said the party leader believed Mr Jenkin had done a “tremendous job” and that the priority list had been a “success” - with 35% of selected candidates women and 10% ethnic minority.

However, he felt someone else was needed to "take it forward” and had chosen former Treasury minister John Maples to do the job as part of a mini reshuffle of the lower ranks.

Mr Jenkin - made a deputy chairman of the party in December 2005 with responsibility for candidates - turned down the chance of an alternative front-bench position, the spokesman said.

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