TORY DEFECTION: 'To resign the whip must be seen as plumbing the depths of disloyalty'

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The Independent Online
DOWN in her Devon constituency, the sense of shock at Emma Nicholson's decision to defect was as palpable as it was in Westminster yesterday. The chairman of Devon West and Torridge Conservative Association, Margaret Taylor, discovered that her MP and neighbour was resigning the Tory whip in a letter hand-delivered to her home, which less than 100 yards from Miss Nicholson's own house in the tiny village of Winkleigh.

More than 12 hours later, Mrs Taylor had still not spoken with the MP, whom she has known for nine years.

"A lot of people work very hard so she could remain an MP, and they are feeling pretty let down," Mrs Taylor said.

Elsewhere in Winkleigh (population 450), there was talk of treachery and double dealing. But there was support too, mainly from some Liberal Democrat voters in the village, which lies at the heart of one of the biggest constituencies in England.

At Townsend House, at the village crossroads, Mrs Taylor was coming to terms with losing her MP. "There was no inkling, no suggestion at all that anything like this was going to happen," she said. "I found out at 8.15 on Friday evening when a hand-delivered letter from her arrived. I took a quick look at the contents and said 'Oh my God' and handed it to my husband. There was a feeling of utter amazement, of being let down.

"It was a personal letter to me in which she said she was resigning the whip and that she was seeking membership of the Liberal Democrats." Mrs Taylor said Conservatives would meet this week to plan their strategy. "The Conservatives will defend the seat successfully, we will make sure of that," she said.

Mrs Taylor's predecessor in the post, Geoffrey Cleverdon, said: "I know Conservatives will feel a sense of betrayal. She has represented us since 1987 and for her to resign the whip must be seen as plumbing the absolute depths of disloyalty."

Miss Nicholson, if she rejects calls for her resignation, will not use Conservative premises for any future surgeries. And when she next comes to The Croft, her pounds 300,000 Winkleigh home, she may find a less than hearty welcome in some quarters.

Margaret Turner, wife of the community council chairman, and a bedrock Tory, was shocked by the announcement. "The first we knew was the television news, and we could not believe it. In my book, no problems in my party would ever persuade me to be a traitor to it. I firmly believe that if you have nailed your colours to the mast, you should stick by them."

A number of senior Tories in the constituency believe that one of the issues behind the MP's decision to resign the whip was her rejection as the local MEP candidate. "She put her name forward for nomination two years ago, but was not successful," said Mrs Turner.

Another Tory, John Edmunds, said the MP should resign to clear the way for the election campaign. "We don't want her around because people would be confused. There is enough confusion already with boundary changes and so on, it is so bad that in some of the northern areas a few Liberal Democrat voters still seem to think Jeremy Thorpe is still the MP."

There was support for Miss Nicholson from Coleen Herriman, one of the seven candidates on the shortlist for the Liberal Democrat nomination for the constituency.

She said: "It was obviously not a sudden decision. A lot of what she was talking about in her resignation letter, single-parent issues and so on, are dear to my own heart. She has made a big and brave decision, but she must also realise that the Liberal Democrats are going to get on with their own business."

Support in Winkleigh for Miss Nicholson was highest on the three small council estates that ring the community.

Marian Short, 72, said: "She's a lovely lady. She'll make a very good Lib Dem MP wherever she goes. She's quite well liked in the village, and people went down to her house for coffee on the anniversary of VE Day. I think Lib Dems will now win this seat. I have voted for them in the past and I'll continue to do so."

Miss Nicholson also has the support of the village butcher, Paul Caron. He said: "I did a bit of cheering when I heard the news. I'm not a Lib Dem, but all the issues she's been talking about, I agree with."

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