Disaffected hit back at party bias

Single men, women and ethnic minority aspirants who want to be Conservative MPs are becoming restive over what they see as a lack of meritocracy and professionalism in the party's selection process.

Some single men on the official candidates' list argue that Tory selectors are more hostile to unmarried men than they used to be. One disaffected Tory on the list said: "This is a very delicate issue. The problem is we can't even meet to discuss the issue collectively because the competition for seats means that someone present would tell tales to Central Office to try to get into their good books."

Tory associations have reacted badly to embarrassments in the private life of Stephen Milligan, the late MP for Eastleigh, and Alan Amos, the former MP for Wrexham who recently defected to Labour.

But one disaffected candidate, who did not want to be named, points out that the collapse of the Prime Minister's "back to basics" initiative on ethical standards came as a result of a scandal caused by a married man, Tim Yeo, and that most other scandals have been perpetrated by married men, such as ministers David Mellor and Steven Norris.

But the support for conservative family values among Tory selectors is being ruthlessly exploited in selection battles. Peter Luff, the centrist MP for Worcester, who is competing with right-wing education minister Eric Forth for the plum Tory seat of mid-Worcestershire, made a speech at the weekend insisting that if a man breaks his promises to his wife, he could not be trusted to keep his promises to his electorate. It will not have escaped the notice of many Tory members that Mr Forth divorced his wife Linda last year.

One candidate, Dr Adrian Rogers, replacing Sir John Hannam in Exeter, an important Labour target, is not just married but director of the Conservative Family Campaign, and an aggressive propagandist for traditional social values.

One of the most striking moves against a single man was the dropping of Rob Hayward, the unmarried Tory candidate in the 1993 Christchurch by-election. Mr Hayward, a former MP for Bristol Kingswood, lost the seat badly to the Liberal Democrats, although he did no worse than other by- election candidates. But he was replaced as Tory candidate after the by- election by Christopher Chope, another former MP, who had the advantage of being married.

Another single man on the candidates' list was specifically asked by a senior Central Office official why he was not married. But concern has been mounting in Central Office for some time about the failure of women to be selected in winnable seats.

Not only has no woman yet been selected for a Tory seat, but the party's small band of 19 existing Tory women MPs is set to dwindle at the next election. A swing to Labour large enough give Tony Blair an overall majority would sweep four of them out of parliament: Elizabeth Peacock (Batley and Spen), Edwina Currie (South Derbyshire), Dame Angela Rumbold herself (Mitcham and Morden) and Angela Knight (Erewash). A further two, Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster) and Dame Jill Knight (Birmingham Edgbaston), have announced their intention to retire at the next election. This could reduce the Tory total to 13, against about 70 women Labour MPs.

Dame Joan Seccombe, Tory vice chairman responsible for women's organisation, was pessimistic about the prospect of putting pressure on local Conservative associations, and ruled out any form of positive discrimination. "One of the most prized assets of an association is that they are autonomous," she said.

LIKELY TORY MPS

Candidates selected for likely Tory seats with no sitting Tory MP (where an MP is retiring, boundary changes have created a new constituency, or the Tories have lost a by-election)

Aldershot Gerald Howarth (former MP)

Ashford Damian Green

Cambridgeshire NW Brian Mawhinney MP

Charnwood Stephen Dorrell MP

Christchurch Christopher Chope (former MP)

Conwy David Jones

Dudley West Graham Postles

Dumfries Struan Stevenson

Eastleigh Stephen Reid

Exeter Adrian Rogers

Gordon John Porter

Hove Andrew Elliott

Ilford South Sir Neil Thorne

Lincoln Tony Brown

Mid Sussex Nicholas Soames MP

Newbury Richard Benyon

Norwich North Robert Kinghorn

Perth and Kinross John Godfrey

Poole Robert Syms

Pudsey Peter Bone

St Ives William Rogers

Selby Ken Hind (former MP)

Southend West David Amess MP

West Dorset Oliver Letwin

Westmorland Tim Collins

Woking Humfrey Malins (former MP)

All 26 are white men, of whom 23 are married. One - Graham Postles in Dudley West - is divorced, and only two - Tim Collins in Westmorland and Lonsdale and William Rogers in St Ives, Cornwall - are single.

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