Fox braced for challenge from hardliner

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Political Correspondent

Sir Marcus Fox, veteran chairman of the influential Conservative 1922 Committee, yesterday vowed to fight an expected bid to unseat him by the right-winger Bob Dunn.

Sir Marcus, who has been criticised for being too close to the Tory leadership, also strongly denied suggestions that he was planning to stand down as MP for Shipley at the next election.

Mr Dunn, a former education minister, will issue a statement on Monday in which he is expected to announce that he will mount a challenge for the leadership in next month's annual poll of Tory backbenchers.

But Sir Marcus said: "There is no way that I feel I have completed the job I started to do three years ago. He added: "I feel I have enough friends on the back benches who have supported me through this last difficult period."

The blunt-speaking professional Yorkshireman is well-liked but only narrowly fended off a challenge last year by Sir Nicholas Bonsor, now a Minister of State at the Foreign Office. There were criticisms that Sir Marcus was too prone to demanding backbenchers' loyalty to John Major - including a warning that a Euro-rebellion would provoke a general election - while failing to satisfactorily relay their dissatisfactions over policy.

But with the Government's majority now down to five, if one Tory MP without the whip is excluded, Sir Marcus insists that loyalty is more important than ever. "I will certainly do everything I can to support the Prime Minister," he said.

Mr Dunn, another northerner, but MP for Dartford in Kent, is a member of the 18-strong committee executive and believes his election as chairman would ensure continuity at a time when a number of fellow executive members are planning to retire from the Commons at the next election. He would be viewed by many MPs as an effective champion of backbench interests who would not shrink from making their views clear to ministers and whips.

Mr Dunn, a leading member of the powerful 92 Group of right-wing Tories, has had a chequered political career. Margaret Thatcher declined his offer to resign as a Minister of State for Education after Labour revealed in 1986 he had obtained his degree in politics and history not from Salford University, as he had recorded in Who's Who, but from Manchester Polytechnic.

Less genial than Sir Marcus and an outspoken critic of liberalism, he backs hanging and once denounced New Age Travellers as a "bunch of unwashed, benefit-grabbing socialist anarchists who deserve a good slap and a wash." On another occasion he demanded immediate overnight detention for children under 16 found on the streets after 10.30pm.

Despite recent criticisms, the equally straight-talking Sir Marcus proved his salt on earlier occasions, effectively stopping the controversial 1992 pit-closure programme in its tracks by declaring: "It is not acceptable."