Defector 'was offered knighthood'

Tories in turmoil: Thurnham allegations denied as 'sleaze' debate again threatens party
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The former Tory MP Peter Thurnham said yesterday he had received hints of a knighthood or the possibility of a safer Conservative seat, to stop him defecting to the Liberal Democrats. But the allegations have been strongly denied by the Tory Party chairman, Brian Mawhinney.

The defection of Mr Thurnham, MP for Bolton North-East, to the Liberal Democrats over alleged "Tory sleaze", has come as a severe blow to the Conservatives' attempts to rebuild morale in the party. Today, the Labour and Liberal Democrat leadership will join forces to call on the Speaker of the House, Betty Boothroyd, to order a high-powered inquiry into the allegations of sleaze.

As the Tories were threatened with being plunged back into the mire over the sleaze allegations, Peter Mandelson, the head of Labour's election campaign, said Mr Thurnham's defection - coming after the Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth - had "put the cork very firmly back in Tories' champagne bottle" .

Mr Thurnham, who resigned the whip in February this year, said he had been approached by Mr Mawhinney, who talked of ways by which the Conservative Party could look after him. Mr Thurnham said he believed he was being offered a knighthood. He named another former party official who had also said he could get Mr Thurnham's name put on the selection lists for other seats.

But a Tory party source said: "Mr Mawhinney has given an absolutely and unequivocal denial that such a meeting took place. Perhaps he is looking for a peerage now from the Liberal Democrats."

Bolton North-East became highly marginal through boundary changes. Mr Thurnham was upset when he failed to get an interview for a seat in the Lake District where he had family connections, and his defection has been dismissed by the party as a "fit of pique" over his failure to get another seat. His defection involved a cloak-and-dagger operation that sounded like an extract from the television drama series, House of Cards.

Senior Conservative figures, led by Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, had tried to persuade him not to resign in protest at the Government's handling of the Nolan committee inquiry into "cash for questions" and the Scott report on claims that ministers had colluded to send arms to Iraq.

Mr Thurnham worked closely with Archy Kirkwood, the Liberal Democrat whip, on two government bills, on which he voted against the Government. He has decided not to contest any seat at the election, but said he had met Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, to discuss defection to the Liberal Democrats before the summer recess. He saw Mr Ashdown at his flat in London last Tuesday and the following day rang back to say he was ready to join the Liberal Democrats.

Mr Thurnham, who has a successful engineering business, said the turning point came when he had breakfast during the summer with Ian Wrigglesworth, a Liberal Democrat adviser on the economy.

Mr Wrigglesworth told Mr Thurnham that Liberal Democrats had "their heart on the left and their pocket on the right - exactly how I have operated for 13 years in Parliament".