Top Tories shy away from by-election

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The Independent Online
The Tories were facing the prospect of a further humiliating defeat and an increase in Labour's majority with a by-election in the normally safe Home Counties seat of Uxbridge, following the sudden death of Sir Michael Shersby, aged 64.

Friends of Michael Portillo were last night discounting any possibility of the former secretary of state for defence running in the by-election to enable him to enter the Conservative Party leadership race.

"You will have to drag someone to stand," said one of Mr Portillo's friends. "With the voters in their current mood, we are likely to lose it."

Sir Michael had held the seat since 1972, but last Thursday saw his majority slashed by Labour from 13,179 to just 724. His death at home, seven days after his narrow victory, added to the Tory woes, reduced the total number of Conservative seats to 164 and increased Labour's majority to 178.

The threat of a further defeat by Labour is likely to put off other ex- cabinet ministers who lost their seats, such as Ian Lang, Michael Forsyth and Malcolm Rifkind.

The Tories are expected to try to hold off the by-election until the late summer.

That could revive the possibility of Chris Patten, the Governor of Hong Kong, seeking a return to Westminster, but his friends said after presiding at the hand-over of the colony to China, he was planning to spend the summer in France writing a book on the tiger economies of the Far East.

Bill Cash, the ardent Euro-sceptic, may join the leadership contest to force a more hostile policy to be adopted by the eventual winner against a federal Europe.

He fuelled speculation that he may stand, although he has no chance of winning.

Stephen Dorrell, the former secretary of state for health, announced yesterday that he would be taking his leadership campaign to Scotland and Wales, where the Tories were wiped out in the general election.

The other camps were also reporting a surge in demand by Tory members in Scotland and Wales for their parties to be revived, possibly by a shift of policy under a new leader to engage in the devolved parliaments.

Lord Archer, who is backing Peter Lilley's stand for the leadership, echoed demands among party members for a change in the leadership rules to allow the grass-roots supporters to have a say in the choice of a leader.

It is too late to change the outcome now, but he said the Tories would be "in the wilderness" for years, if they did not make changes for the future.

Obituary, page 18