'Cameron's cutie' wins constituency catfight

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The Independent Online

David Cameron had to put aside all possible affairs of state yesterday to sort out a catfight that threatened to rip one of his constituency parties apart.

At the centre was Joanne Cash, from Mr Cameron's own Notting Hill set, who is so far removed from the stereotypical blue rinse, hang 'em and flog 'em Tory that she is known in party circles as "Cameron's cutie". But her easy manner, sharp intelligence and glittering social contacts have not won over the hearts and minds of all Tory activists in Westminster North, where she was selected as the Tory candidate.

Some locals resented the choice of an outsider, who won selection from a shortlist that included a respected local councillor, Margaret Doyle. There were whispers she was too busy pursuing her legal career, her social life, her television appearances and her involvement with a Conservative think-tank to put in the hours needed to seize a marginal seat from Labour.

Two weeks before Christmas, the Tories went down to heavy defeat in a council by-election. According to the Labour Party, an 11 per cent swing to Labour produced the lowest vote that any Conservative candidate had received in the ward since 1903.

On 29 January, Ms Cash revealed on Twitter that there was to be another major demand on her time. "Happy news I have been bursting to tell you: O and I are expecting our first baby in Aug. Huge support from DC [David Cameron] down. Thrilled."

Officially, the Conservatives would not say yesterday what happened next, but according to one local activist, Ms Cash suspected that a plot was afoot to use her pregnancy as a pretext to get her to stand down. She called an emergency meeting of the local association to face down her critics. Her nemesis was the constituency chairman, Amanda Sayers, a former stockbroker who gave up her job to raise a family, and is well respected by local Conservatives. The two women had fallen out so thoroughly that one was going to have to go.

The sense of crisis was heightened by the appearance of two members of the Shadow Cabinet: the party chairman, Eric Pickles, in support of Ms Cash, and Lord Strathclyde, a Westminster resident and the Tory leader in the House of Lords, reported to have sided with Mrs Sayers.

Mr Pickles tried to broker a compromise under which Mrs Sayers would move from the chairmanship to the less influential but grander-sounding post of association president. She accepted, but Ms Cash left the meeting with her husband, then returned to announce her resignation.

Then, at eight o'clock last night, a spokesperson for Mr Cameron announced that Ms Cash is "still the candidate for Westminster North". Shortly afterwards, Ms Cash announced on Twitter: "I did resign. Assoc did not accept. CCHQ has resolved specific issue so I am not leaving. It's official DC has changed the party!!!!!!!!"

Normally, such a resignation would be the end of a political career; parties do not take kindly to candidates leaving them in the lurch just before an election. But not many candidates can match Ms Cash's social network. She lives almost next door to the shadow Chancellor, George Osborne. Her husband, Octavius Black, managing director of the consultancy Mind Gym, was at Eton with Mr Cameron.

When the couple married in 2008, the main speech was delivered by Michael Gove, the shadow Schools Secretary. Other guests included Mr Cameron's communications director, Andy Coulson, and the shadow Culture minister, Ed Vaizey.

Ms Cash is a moderniser in the Cameron mould. She supports all-women shortlists to overcome sexist bias in the party. The "bio" she put up on her Twitter page had the message "RIP Dinosaurs".

But after the furore that blew up in Norfolk three months ago, when Tory activists tried to sack a female candidate because she had had an affair with a married man, Mr Cameron decided that he could not allow another prominent moderniser to bite the dust. It was not until late into the evening that his staff had managed to undo Ms Cash's resignation, and the detail of their endeavours remain unknown.

One person looking unusually cheerful was Westminster North's Labour MP, Karen Buck, who is defending a majority of 3,021, and was suddenly thinking she might have a future in politics after all.

Tory connections: Blacks and blues

* Joanne Cash's husband, Octavius Black, was at Eton with David Cameron.

* George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, is their near neighbour.

* The main speech at their wedding was given by Michael Gove, the shadow Schools Secretary.

* Tory spin-doctor Andy Coulson was another guest.

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