Politics: Demise of man who always protested his innocence

Piers Merchant, the Conservative MP dogged by newspaper allegations about his relationship with an 18 year-old researcher, resigned from Parliament yesterday. As speculation started about who will fill one of the few relatively safe Tory seats, Fran Abrams and Jojo Moyes witnessed the bizarre demise of a man who continued to protest his innocence.

All political careers end in tears, of course, and Piers Merchant's was no exception. The member for Beckenham, whose majority was slashed in May after he and his "friend" Anna Cox were pictured together in the Sun newspaper, was doing his grieving in private last night.

Mr Merchant, who survived his first public pillorying after receiving the backing of his local party, decided to throw in the towel after the Sunday Mirror revealed that he had spent several days during last week's Conservative Party conference with Ms Cox.

The drama surrounding Mr Merchant continued unabated last night as Ms Cox was taken to hospital from his family home, after launching an emotional attack on waiting press.

Photographers said that she appeared to be suffering some kind of minor breakdown.

Miss Cox's collapse marked the end of a bizarre day at the Merchant family's Beckenham home. Press were camped out following news of Mr Merchant's resignation, but the teenager, with whom he is alleged to have had an affair, spent much of the day in the house with the Merchants and an unidentified friend.

Early yesterday evening, she emerged to ask what the photographers were after. When one said "A picture of you and Mr Merchant", Ms Cox became extremely agitated.

A matter of minutes later, an ambulance arrived along with police officers. Miss Cox subsequently left the house leaning heavily on two paramedics and two police officers.

Mr Merchant said he had decided to resign "to protect my family, especially my two sensitive children, and also my friends, including Anna Cox and her family, from the intensive and continued tabloid intrusion into our private lives which otherwise seems set to continue indefinitely, and from further character assassination."

Some local Tories admitted they felt let down, though. Eric Chalker, a member of the Beckenham executive committee, said: "People will obviously be feeling very bruised."

He added that the decision to stick by Mr Merchant when the Sun revelations appeared in the run-up to the election campaign had seemed the right one at the time, but if the MP had not resigned, "I think that something would have had to give."

Mr Merchant had a 15,000 majority when he was elected in 1992, but there was a 15 per cent swing to Labour in May and it was reduced to 4,953 despite boundary changes which should have increased it to around 22,000. Despite Labour's popularity, the Conservatives can be reasonably confident of holding on to the seat.

Although Michael Portillo appeared to have ruled himself out of the succession for the seat last night, a number of other high-profile Conservatives are still without seats. While the Beckenham Conservative Association might be reluctant to replace a rightwinger like Mr Merchant with a moderate such as Chris Patten, they will still have a whole host of ex- ministers to choose from.

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