Tory faithful denied vote on leader

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Conservative MPs last night rebuffed party demands for grassroots activists to be given a say in the choice of a new Tory leader to replace John Major next month.

The party's 164 MPs, including two Tory deputy speakers, will elect a new leader by 19 June at the very latest.

But it was made clear to Sir Archie Hamilton, the new chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, that the party organisation would arrange for constituency ballots to be held so that MPs could be presented with grassroots opinion before they themselves vote at each round.

It is entirely possible that the activists will vote differently from the MPs, thereby undermining the credibility of the new leader, but MPs on the left and right of the party have been most reluctant to renounce any of their power this week.

Robin Hodgson, chairman of the party's National Union, the voluntary wing of the party, had asked for the broader party to be given a 20 per cent stake in the leadership vote, and even Brian Mawhinney, the outgoing party chairman, had suggested 15 per cent.

Both those calls were swept aside yesterday in a statement from Sir Archie to the weekly meeting of the 1922 Committee in the Commons yesterday.

There was not even one question raised on his statement, and the meeting broke up after just 10 minutes.

Sir Archie, who was earlier dubbed a "dinosaur out of the dark ages" by one leading party activist, said that the new leadership would be chosen under the existing rules, but MPs would propose a number of options for reform to be considered by the party conference next October, to be followed by concrete plans to be agreed by the MPs before the end of the year.

Sir Archie told The Independent: "I totally accept, and we've all agreed, that there will be a very much wider franchise for leadership elections in future." But he then added: "I wouldn't go so far as to say it would be one member, one vote."

Asked whether there would be a vote on the issue at the annual party conference, in Blackpool, Sir Archie said: "Probably not. I should think, knowing the Conservative Party, there will be a fair amount of discussion at party conference and we have then undertaken to harden up those proposals. The MPs would then decide on the final package by the end of the year."

Under the existing rules, the five declared contenders for the first- round ballot, on 10 June - Stephen Dorrell, William Hague, Kenneth Clarke, Peter Lilley and John Redwood - would require a majority of votes of those entitled to vote (83) plus a majority of at least 15 per cent of those entitled to vote (25) over the runner-up.

Margaret (now Baroness) Thatcher fell on the 15 per cent hurdle in 1990, and if no one wins on that basis on 10 June, a second ballot will be held on 17 June.

For that round, in which the winner requires at least 83 votes, new contenders are allowed into the race. If no one wins that majority, the final run- off between the top two takes place two days later, when a simple majority is needed.