Forsyth tries to stop meltdown

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With Scots Tories tearing their own flesh like wounded beasts, Michael Forsyth, Secretary of State for Scotland, attempted the impossible yesterday when he tried to focus attention on jobs and the economy.

A (too) coincidental announcement by Mr Forsyth that First Direct, the telephone bank, is to create as many as 5,000 jobs in Lanarkshire could not obscure the fact that the Conservatives are facing meltdown in Scotland.

A faction within the party is being blamed for the weekend resignation of Sir Michael Hirst, the party chairman, over past homosexual friendship. Sir Michael had been "pushed" by senior officials although it was doubtful that newspapers had sufficient evidence to nail him, one insider said yesterday.

The infighting was all but confirmed by Annabel Goldie, who has succeeded Sir Michael at the helm of the foundering Tory ship, when she said the party had its "malcontents". Caveats that all parties had dissidents had little impact.

While John Major, at his London press conference, was ready to tackle sleaze questions head on, Mr Forsyth and his colleagues were more reluctant - even though they had the same need to clear the issue away before today's manifesto is launched.

Miss Goldie, repeatedly trying to close down questions about Sir Michael's resignation and the shambles in the Scottish party, snapped after 40 minutes: "I'm simply not prepared to entertain any more questions on this."

Mr Forsyth wryly admitted that the campaign had not got off to an ideal start. "I could have planned it better," he said, adding that Sir Michael's departure was a "setback".

The resignation means Mr Forsyth will have even less time for nursing his highly marginal seat of Stirling. Labour needs a swing of only 0.6 per cent to depose the Secretary of State.

With continuing disarray, the odds are stacking up against Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, in Galloway and Upper Nithsdale, and possibly Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, in Edinburgh Pentlands.

The Tories hold only 10 out of 72 seats in Scotland. Fear of losing more gave way to panic following the resignations of Sir Michael and Allan Stewart, the former Scottish Office minister, after reports of a relationship with a married woman.

Sir Michael was the front- runner to succeed Mr Stewart as the candidate for Eastwood - the safest Tory seat in Scotland. But according to a Conservative source, his ambitions were thwarted by "enemies" who began spreading rumours about his past. "It went horribly wrong," said the source.

Instead, the favourite to defend the safe seat is Paul Cullen QC, the Solicitor General for Scotland. An ambitious newcomer to party politics, the 40-year Edinburgh lawyer was expected to be selected at a private meeting late last night.

A middle-class dormitory to the south of Glasgow, Eastwood was held by Allan Stewart in 1992 with a majority of 11,688.

Mr Forsyth yesterday denied he had deliberately kept a low profile as the Stewart and Hirst sagas unfolded. He had been occupied last week with a Cabinet meeting at which the report on food poisoning deaths was discussed and finishing off the Scottish manifesto.