`Chicken-run' MPs told not to apply

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The Independent Online
The first official indication of a backlash by grassroots Conservative activists against Tory MPs on the "chicken-run" to safer seats from constituencies affected by boundary changes has come in a memorandum sent to would-be candidates.

The constituency association in the solidly Tory new south London seat of Bromley and Chislehurst has persuaded Central Office to circulate a clear warning to nervous MPs.

The new official notice to candidates of seats opening up the selection process takes the unusual step of putting a special note beside the entry for Bromley and Chislehurst - which expands the current seat held by Roger Sims, who is retiring. It says: "Those MPs whose constituencies do not disappear as a result of reorganisation need not apply."

The move follows criticisms of some Tories for abandoning their seats for safer ones. David Amess, whose marginal Basildon seat was actually made slightly safer by boundary changes, particularly annoyed local activists when he was chosen as the candidate for South-end West, where former Cabinet minister Paul Channon is retiring.

Academic research suggests that sitting MPs have a personal vote worth 1,000 to 1,500 votes, which some activists accuse "chicken runners" of throwing away.

Other Conservative MPs abandoning their seats include the Secretary of State for Transport, Sir George Young (Ealing Acton) and Peter Bottomley (Eltham).

"too old" to fight a marginal seat; Nick Hawkins (Blackpool South), who is in the last six for Reading West; and Defence minister Nicholas Soames (Crawley), selected for mid-Sussex.

The Labour Party has exploited the situation eagerly, claiming it as evidence that Conservative MPs expect Tony Blair to win the next election.

Meanwhile, the current round of selections produced further ministerial casualties over the weekend. Peter Luff, a Tory backbencher, beat Thatcherite Education and Employment minister Eric Forth for the right to contest the new safe Tory seat of mid-Worcestershire. And Andrew Lansley, the outgoing director of research at Central Office, beat Defence minister James Arbuthnot (whose seat is being abolished by the boundary commissioners) for Cambridgeshire South.

Tory jitters about the failure so far to choose a single female candidate in a winnable seat were also increased by the selection of David Prior, son of Jim Prior, in Norfolk North.