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Leeds prepares for an invasion of Tories in jumpers

THE VENUE already has a Harvey Nicks, late-night shopping and allegedly the best cappuccino north of Soho. Now Leeds is set for the ultimate challenge to its Northernness: an invasion of Tory MPs bearing goodwill and chunky jumpers.

Yes, that lowlight of the political calendar, the annual Conservative Party bonding session, this year moves up the M1 for the first time - and the unsuspecting capital of West Yorkshire has been chosen as the site. In a move that could have Alan Bennett choking on his rich tea biscuits, nearly the entire parliamentary Tory party is expected to smother the city next month in smart but casual bonhomie.

The gathering, which for the past two years has taken place in the more genteel surroundings of Eastbourne, will move to Oulton Hall Hotel, just a Hovis-bike ride from some of the poorest districts in Britain. Part of the "Project Hague" strategy of portraying the party leader as less elitist, an action man proud of his Northern roots, the decision is a deliberate attempt to appeal to voters outside the Tory shires.

Exactly how the "colourful locals", as Yorkshire residents were called in a now-notorious memo on the project, will react is uncertain. But the shift northwards has attracted a record number of MPs to the event, with nearly 90 per cent of the 165-strong party having accepted the invitation from Conservative Central Office.

The 152-bedroom, five-star Oulton Hall Hotel recently achieved fame as the hen-night venue of the Spice Girl, Mel G. Most Tory MPs are posh, some are sporty, a few are extremely scary and their leader does look uncannily like a baby, so the Spice Girls theme may prove perfectly appropriate.

However, Mel G's wild hen night, which featured body-popping youngsters keeping entire floors of the hotel awake until the early hours, is unlikely to form a template for the Tory get-together. The original "brainstorming and bonding" session in Eastbourne was marked by a more sedate musical accompaniment as the party chairman, Michael Ancram, strummed his acoustic guitar and proceeded to warble that hymn to Tory divisions on Europe, "Bridge Over Troubled Water".

Now a firm fixture in the party's schedule, the get- togethers were initially marred by an alarming outbreak of Christmas- present sweaters and saggy, baggy cords. Displaying all the forced informality of undercover policemen, MPs eagerly swapped their chalkstripes and brogues for Pringle V-necks and chino slacks. Having looked more like Alan Partridge than Man About Town, backbenchers were advised to ditch the jumpers last year, but some insisted on keeping their woollies.

Asked if Mr Ancram would be getting out his guitar again, the Tory MP John Whittingdale, one of the organisers of the gathering, said: "I think you would have difficulty persuading him not to."