Conservatives line up for the 'chicken run'

Stephen Castle looks at how boundary changes that have made safe seats marginals have prompted a flight of MPs
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The Independent Online
IN LABOUR parlance it is the "chicken run" - the flight of Conservative MPs from seats made marginal by Boundary Commission changes. And the Opposition now scents some big propaganda coups.

On Friday night David Amess abandoned Basildon, which became the byword for Thatcherism in the Eighties, for safer Southend West. Worse may be to come. Brian Mawhinney, chairman of the Conservative party, is considering whether to leave his Peterborough constituency to fight the safer seat of North West Cambridgeshire. His local association says no decision has been reached; Labour is practising its new soundbite: "Chairman Chicken."

Then there is Nicholas Soames, minister for the armed forces, who quit Crawley for safer Mid-Sussex (vacated by Tim Renton). And the Transport Secretary, Sir George Young, now representing Ealing and Acton, who is linked with Maidenhead. The ex-Chancellor, Norman Lamont, is still searching for a seat.

Others who may be on the move include Sir John Wheeler (Westminster North), Peter Bottomley (Eltham) and Nick Hawkins (Blackpool South). When Mr Soames won Mid-Sussex he did so against competition from six current or former MPs.

In parts of the country the fall-out is spectacular. The re-drawn Mid- Worcestershire seat is being contested by Peter Luff (now representing Worcester) and Eric Forth (the old Mid-Worcestershire). Both want the new seat and are willing to leave behind some of their old voters to get it. Neither is too worried that their party could lose out through the loss of an incumbent MP (thought to be worth at least 500 votes).

Yet the chicken run is the tip of a larger selection iceberg. In an average Parliament, 50-60 Conservative MPs will retire. Most associations have held up their selection until the autumn so that those dispossessed by the Boundary Commission have a chance to fight.

According to Robert Hayward, former Conservative MP for Kingswood, "in September and October there will be an enormous amount of interviews all over the country. My advice to some of the best candidates is to hire a helicopter".

Theirs is an unpredictable plight. One ex-MP said: "There is nothing so levelling as the scramble for seats. It makes you realise that on the greasy pole it is as well, while on your way up, to be friendly to those on their way down."

Nor is it an exact science. Take, for example, one minister and retread (an MP who returned after losing his seat), Iain Sproat. In 1983 he abandoned his Aberdeen South constituency to fight the better prospect of Roxburgh and Berwickshire. He lost - but his Conservative colleague, Gerry Malone, won Aberdeen South.

However, some rules of thumb exist. MPs will examine the majority on offer. Ten thousand would constitute the Conservatives' 115th most marginal seat - safe in anything but a Labour landslide. Yet the Boundary Commission changes have complicated the situation by including new areas. Although voting figures for new wards are available from local elections these are not reliable for general election predictions.

In general, people interested only in safe seats usually look to those with 50 per cent of the vote and (depending on their pessimism) anything from 5,000-12,000 majorities.

An applicant who has not fought a constituency before is unlikely to land a safe seat first time round (as Stephen Milligan and two others did in the last Parliament). Increasingly, constituency associations prefer candidates with a wider experience to young career politicians.

Applicants who went early in the process prospered from it. Among them was Gerald Howarth, who lost his seat in 1992, then secured Aldershot, and Damian Green, formerly of Mr Major's policy unit, who was selected for Ashford. Major loyalists are likely to be rewarded; backers of John Redwood will find progress difficult.

Then there is a pecking order at which the retreads, particularly ex- ministers, come top. Francis Maude, the high-flying former Treasury minister who lost his seat at the last election, has bought a house on the Warwickshire/Oxfordshire borders. Would-be Tory MPs last week pointed out something that was probably not in the estate agent's specifications: the home has easy access to Witney - the constituency that Douglas Hurd will vacate at the next election leaving a majority of 18,464.

Like Mr Maude, Michael Fallon, a former Education minister, should be high on the list of constituency chairmen looking for an experienced politician. John Maples, another former Treasury minister whose Central Office memorandum was leaked last year, is also on expected to make a return.

But local associations are unpredictable. Some prefer the style of the maverick ex-MP Peter Bruinvels to an ex-minister ("Peter," said one rival, "gets out a pair of handcuffs and rages about law and order"). Mr Hayward added: "There is a history of seats which have had front-benchers [as their MP] saying they don't want another. Quite often when they have had a wet, they go for a dry, when their MP was old, they go for a young one." Some associations have ruled out candidates who want to be ministers.

That means applications are often of the peppershot variety, aiming for lots of seats just on the off-chance. One Conservative was surprised at the high turnout for a recent but low-key conference on rural affairs, before noting that three of those present were known seat-hunters. Then the penny dropped: selections are imminent in the agricultural constituency of Westmorland and Lonsdale with a healthy majority of 14,920.

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