Selection: Tory plan for secret poll test of MPs

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The Independent Online
ALL TORY MPs could be forced to face mandatory reselection contests in a move to root out sleaze and promote more women to Parliament.

Radical plans to make sitting MPs undergo compulsory secret ballots of local members will be considered for the first time at the Conservative spring conference tomorrow. Under the measures, proposed in a motion before the Spring Forum at Reading, the party's current re-adoption procedures would be replaced by a more formal system of reselection.

The idea's backers claim that it would end forever fiascos such as the failure of Conservative Central Office to prevent Neil Hamilton from standing in Tatton at the last general election.

They also say that it would make it much easier for women, and even for homosexual candidates, to win nominations for plum seats in the Tory heartlands.

However, opponents believe that the move would plunge the Tories into the same kind of bloodletting that dogged Labour when it adopted the practice of compulsory reselection in the early Eighties.

Many Tory MPs reacted angrily to the move when informed by Archie Hamilton, chairman of the party's backbench 1922 Committee, but it is backed by grass-roots activists.

The motion will be moved by Lady Bethell, chairman of Buckingham Conservative Association, in a secret session of the Tory conference.

It is understood that William Hague dislikes the motion "in its current form" and may pressure delegates to defer making a decision on the matter.

However, the Tory leader is known to favour the greater democracy of the proposals and does not want to rule out change altogether.

One Tory Association representative, who did not want to be named, said: "Some MPs hate the idea, but lots of people in the voluntary party want more democracy."

Tory associations currently conduct re-adoption meetings with a show of hands unless a third of members call for a secret ballot or the constituency chairman decides to have one. Normally, the procedure is a rubber stamp, but some activists point out that the system prohibits those who want change but do not want to publicly criticise their MP.

Mr Hague will use the spring conference today to outline his new "caring Conservatism" approach, and deliver eight specific manifesto commitments for the next general election.

Key among them will be a pledge to reintroduce to the tax and benefit system an "explicit and special recognition of marriage". Although the restoration of the Married Couples' Allowance is not likely, transferring partners' tax allowances is one possible proposal.

The Tory leader will also promise to abolish budget capping of local councils and to cut red tape for business.

In his keynote speech, Mr Hague will say that he wants to "break free" from the Tories' past under the Thatcher and Major governments: If the Conservative Party is going to champion freedom, local institutions, champion a better quality of life for all, then it cannot allow itself to be seen as elitist, out of touch, and arrogant.

"It cannot allow itself to be seen as for the few rather than the many, as harsh and uncaring. Ours will be a party that has broken free. It will be a party that cares," he will say.