Labour fingers Tory 'barmy army'

Paul Routledge on the new breed of right-wingers

It is sometimes said that, in extremis, political parties turn to extremists. If that is so, the Conservative Party may be in bigger trouble than anyone imagined. Out there in the shires, the market towns and deepest suburbia, local Tories are choosing serious hard-liners to stand at the general election.

Or so the operators of Tony Blair's expensive new toy, the highly sophisticated Excalibur election database, would have us believe. It has identified 40 of the 76 new Tory candidates at the election as "right-wingers" and Labour clearly intends to frighten the voters with their more extreme views, so confirming its own stance as the party of the mainstream and the centre. The Tories dispute the labels.

Excalibur's operators invite us to spare a thought for the voters of marginal Thurrock, Essex, who are being offered an ultra-Essex man, Andrew Rosindell. Last time round he stood at hopeless Glasgow Provan and paraded with a dog in a Union Jack waistcoat. Asked about his social life, he said he had no girlfriend, but he did have a dog.

Then we should consider the voters of The Wrekin, where Peter Bruinvels is attempting a parliamentary comeback. The man who believes that God sent him to the Commons from Leicester East in 1983, but supported nude photographs of women in newspapers, also famously offered to become Britain's official hangman.

Neither is likely to win, but others of like stripe unquestionably will. The Sixties generation of Conservative back-benchers who came in with Edward Heath as their leader are now bowing out, to be replaced by Thatcher's Children, who have come of age. Generally speaking.

Watch, for example, for John Bercow, who was chairman of the Federation of Conservative Students when it was so right-wing that even Norman Tebbit had to close it down. He looks a fair bet at Buckingham, the soft-South constituency into which he literally helicoptered in his insatiable bid to become an MP. Bercow is a serious partyer (a member of the Bullingdon dining club at Oxford) who thinks the left "must be confronted, not appeased".

Then there is the daddy of them all, Dr Julian Lewis, deputy head of research at Conservative Central Office, who is still fighting the Cold War. He is set to be returned from New Forest East, a new seat in Hampshire with a notional Tory majority of more than 11,000. He is theright's Keith Flett, forever scribbling to the papers about the outrageous left-wing past of somebody or other.

And we should not forget Adrian Rogers (Exeter), organiser of the Conservative Family campaign, who told a magazine last year that working women were "fair game, because they're available, they're mobile and they're dressed to kill".

Surveying the results of Excalibur's trawl, Labour's deputy leader, John Prescott, said: "After the next election, even if the Tories lose badly we will see the most right-wing parliamentary Conservative Party in living memory - and still hardly a woman in sight. If John Major thought he had problems with 'bastards' in his Cabinet in this parliament, he won't know what has hit him after the election, when he is trying to pull the Tory Opposition into shape."

Right-wing Tories, however, refuse to celebrate what is supposed to be an impending triumph. One self-confessed hard-liner (that was all he would admit to, certainly not his name) heaped scorn on Labour's analysis. "Is this what they spent half a million pounds on?" he snickered. "Some of these people are on the Tory left!"

Excalibur said that Elizabeth Gibson, candidate at Hampstead and Highgate against Glenda Jackson, and wife of disgraced ex-Tory MP Keith Best (who made multiple applications for shares in privatised companies), was a right-winger. Absolutely not, harrumphed Mr Right. What about Shaun Woodward, the candidate to replace Douglas Hurd at Witney? Ridiculous again. "I would put him firmly on the left."

The trouble is, budding politicians are wont to paint themselves in the right colours for their audience. If a young Tory turk thinks it would be wise to take on deep blue, the colour can change. How right-wing do you want me to be, he might ask. And constituency Conservative Associations can be unbelievably fickle. Down in deepest Dorset West, where kindly Sir Jim Spicer is retiring, they were looking for a local farmer with a bit of social conscience, on the left of the party but not irrationally so. What did they fetch up with? Oliver Letwin, a north London intellectual firmly on the Euro-sceptic right, credited with parentage of the poll tax, who managed to lose Hampstead and Highgate to an Aslef-sponsored Labour candidate, the first time the seat had gone down since the Harold Wilson landslide of 1966.

The Tory right feels it has been traduced by Labour. "Yes, we have got some of our people in. But the left have got theirs in too," said the hard-line source. "Look at Damian Green. He's got Ashford." And so he has, where he is as certain as anything is in politics to take over from Sir Keith Speed. Green, a member of John Major's policy unit for two years, was closely involved in the attempt to roll back the permissive society that ended in the Back to Basics fiasco. But even Labour admits he is "firmly on the Tory left". He has tried - unsuccessfully, according to Labour - "to get more figures from the Tory left selected".

These labels are a tricky business. But David Hill, Labour's spokesman, has no doubts: "Whenever we accuse the Tories of lurching to the right, they reject that accusation. One look at the list of their candidates shows just how accurate we are."

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