Politics: Tories in turmoil as `No Home Malone' fails

The Conservative crisis bounced from bad to worse yesterday when Michael Heseltine attacked his the judgement of his party leader. Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, reports on two by-elections and a banishment.

In the Winchester by-election, there was not so much a landslide as an avalanche, with the Liberal Democrats achieving a sensational 21,000 majority; while over in true-blue Beckenham, there was a further swing from the Tories to Labour, reducing the Conservative majority to little more than 1,000 votes.

But the continuing problems of the Conservative Party were then exacerbated when the former deputy prime minister felt provoked into delivering a withering public rebuke for Mr Hague.

Yesterday, the Conservative leadership unexpectedly withdrew the Commons whip from the rebellious Peter Temple-Morris, the MP for Leominster, who was provoked into resigning from the party. He had previously said he was not defecting to Labour, but would stay and fight the European corner within his own party.

Commenting on the disciplinary action - one step short of expulsion - a leadership spokesman said that officials were not going to put up with Mr Temple-Morris's continuing disloyalty, following his announcement that he could not stand as a Conservative, against the single currency, at the next election.

Mr Heseltine told ITN: "I think it's an unwise and unnecessary decision ... he represents a stream of opinion within the Conservative Party that we should seek to encourage, not to divorce."

A senior Labour source said Mr Hague was "bonkers", but the Tory leader was unmoved. "I'm not leading the Conservative Party by trying to please everybody," Mr Hague said, "but I do expect people to have a clear commitment to the Conservative Party.

"Michael Heseltine always expected that of everybody when he was the deputy prime minister. I expect it now I'm the leader of the party."

That blunt repudiation of Mr Heseltine will dismay the pro-European wing of the Conservative Party. In a speech in Brighton last night, Lord Renton, a former chief whip, said it was his worst nightmare to think that there were no Tory MPs in Brighton or Hove, and a 21,000-vote Liberal Democrat majority in Winchester was a total impossibility.

"The simple message is that a hard anti-European line is not working and does not deserve to work for the Tories," he said.

Mr Temple-Morris later trumped his leadership by announcing that he would sit as a One Nation Conservative - on the Labour benches of the House - but a Labour spokesman said: "He will be more than welcome sitting on our benches and he would be welcomed if he decided at a later date to go the whole way." That is a distinct possibility.

William Hill, the bookmaker, followed up the by-election results with an even-money chance that Mr Hague would be replaced as party leader before the next election.

Mr Hague's reaction to the by-election results was to say that the party had won one and lost one. "It is going to take time to rebuild our fortunes," he said.

The Prime Minister, in Luxembourg for the jobs summit yesterday, said: "Here they are as the Opposition party and they are losing Winchester by an even larger amount, and they have got a cut majority in Beckenham, which was one of their safest seats."

But the night and day belonged to Mark Oaten. His initial two-vote win in Winchester last May had been challenged by the former incumbent Gerry Malone - yesterday he achieved the biggest Liberal Democrat majority in the Commons. Mr Malone has lost so many by-elections that he is known at Westminster as ``No home Malone''.

Paddy Ashdown said: "1 May was not a high-water mark for us and, in converting Winchester, which has been historically a safe Conservative seat, to one with such a substantial majority, there really are no glass ceilings for the Liberal Democrats."

By-election results

WINCHESTER

LD win. Mark Oaten (LD) 37,006 (68.05%, +25.99%) Gerry Malone (C) 15,450 (28.41%, -13.65%) Patrick Davies (Lab) 944 (1.74%, -8.78%) Robin Page (Referendum/UK Independence Alliance) 521 (0.96%) Lord David Sutch (Monster Raving Loony Party) 316 (0.58%, +0.09%) Richard Huggett (Literal Democrat Mark Here To Win) 59 (0.11%) Ms Rosemary Barry (Natural Law Party) 48 (0.09%) Roger Everest (Euro Conservative) 40 (0.07%)

LD maj 21,556 (39.64%) 19.82% swing C to LD Electorate 79,116; Turnout 54,384 (68.74%, -9.92%)

BECKENHAM

C hold. Mrs Jacqui Lait (C) 13,162 (41.25%, -1.22%) Bob Hughes (Lab) 11,935 (37.40%, +4.04%) Ms Rosemary Vetterlein (LD) 5,864 (18.38%, +0.24%) Philip Rimmer (Liberal) 330 (1.03%, -0.29%) John McAuley (National Front) 267 (0.84%, +0.13%) Leonard Mead (New Britain Referendum) 237 (0.74%) Terence Campion (Social Foundation Party) 69 (0.22%) John Small (Natural Law Party) 44 (0.14%)

C maj 1,227 (3.85%) 2.63% swing C to Lab

Electorate 73,228; Turnout 31,908 (43.57%, -31.08%)

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