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Anti-EU Tories rage at poll 'fix'

TORY MEPs are being accused by their colleagues of wining and dining party chairmen on trips to Brussels, at the European taxpayer's expense, to beat off a challenge to their seats from Euro-sceptics.

Dozens of Tory party chairmen who help to make up the regional boards that select the candidates for next year's European elections have been invited to Brussels on paid trips funded through the European Parliament.

"It stinks to high heaven," said one disgruntled Tory Euro-sceptic. The result of entertaining the party officials on the high-powered Euro gravy train is that only one Euro-sceptic is believed to have got through to the selection shortlists.

A Central Office source last night confirmed that the trips had been taking place using money available for "information purposes", but denied it was arm-twisting the selection panels.

A Tory MP said: "It has been very effectively organised by the MEPs and they are reaping the rewards ... The Euro-sceptics have been less effective."

The Euro-sceptics also claim that some of those involved in selection boards have been invited to meetings in London with leading pro-European Tory figures, including Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine.

The allegations came as Tory Euro-sceptics threatened a revolt at this year's ConservativeParty conference over the selection of pro-Euro candidates for the European elections. William Hague, the Tory leader, is hoping to use the conference as a springboard to rebuild the party's electoral chances and will be dismayed if the disruption shows the party is as divided as ever over Europe.

But Euro-sceptic Tory supporters are furious that key Euro-sceptic figures, including the former MPs Tony Marlow and Nicholas Budgen, and ex-Chancellor Norman Lamont, have failed to make it to the regional candidates' lists.

"The grass roots will explode because they are being completely ignored," said one Euro-sceptic Tory. "Some of them were not even given an interview in the West Midlands."

The Euro-sceptics are claiming they represent the majority opinion within the party and reflect the policy adopted by the Tory leader to oppose the single European currency until the end of the next parliament.

As the row threatens to engulf the leadership, the final selection meetings for the biggest regions - in the South-East, West Midlands and in Yorkshire and Humber - will be held this weekend. The Conservative Party said yesterday that the meetings "will mark the culmination of the party's new, open and democratic process in which all party members from each region were eligible to vote for and rank their favoured candidates".

A Tory spokesman said: "It is super-Saturday because the three bigger regions are selecting. The members will be arriving en masse for the selection meetings.''