An angry, retired Army officer, a confidential document posted on the website of a B&B and a party feud that has “spiralled out of control” – this is the world of North Yorkshire Conservatives.
While the Labour Party has Falkirk, the scene of allegations of trade-union vote-rigging, the Conservatives have Thirsk and Malton, where evidence has now emerged that local activists played fast and loose with party rules in their determination to sack their sitting MP, Anne McIntosh. One suspicion is that there are Tory activists in North Yorkshire who just do not like being represented by a woman. A prominent local told the Yorkshire Post that their MP is a “silly girl” – when the constituency needs someone like Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage.
Their shenanigans have been exposed at a convenient moment for Ms McIntosh. Earlier this month, all 560 members of the Thirsk and Malton party were sent ballot papers to vote on whether to sack Ms McIntosh or let her stand again as a Tory candidate. With her future in the balance, a journalist from the Yorkshire Post spotted a copy of a confidential internal party report on the website of an award-winning bed-and-breakfast in the North York Moors owned by a prominent local Conservative and supporter of Ms McIntosh.
The report, which contained a warning that any Tory caught leaking it “shall be liable to disciplinary action”, detailed how a year ago the local party executive was packed with “representatives” of non-existent party branches, just before a crucial vote was to be held on Ms McIntosh’s future. The inquiry panel, which was sent in by the Tories’ head office to investigate problems in the constituency, pointed out that “it is not possible to serve on an executive council, ‘representing’ a ward or branch which no longer exists”.
The rules were designed “to prevent an unrepresentative takeover of an executive council”, their report added, and “by failing to follow established norms, conventions and procedures, the composition and status of the executive council became confused”.
There was confusion over who was allowed to vote, which was important because at its first meeting, on 17 January 2013, the enlarged executive had to make an instant decision on whether Ms McIntosh was to be their candidate at the next general election.
Thinking that the Coalition was on the point of collapse, and that an election loomed, the executive decided not to re-select Ms McIntosh. A month later, the constituency chairman, Peter Steveney, a retired Army Major, wrote to all local party members saying they might be balloted on her future, urging anyone who wanted to hear the “whole story” to contact him.
His letter infuriated Ms McIntosh’s supporters, who reported Mr Steveney to the party’s Disciplinary Committee. They decided to take no action. Then somebody noticed that Mr Steveney and the chairman of the disciplinary committee, Trevor Mort, had been fellow officers of the Royal Armoured Corps. The subsequent committee of inquiry investigated rumours of a whitewash between old Army chums, but ruled it out because it was more than 50 years since the two last met.
The committee criticised Mr Steveney’s letter, saying that it was “unhelpful and detrimental to Miss McIntosh’s position, and unfair to her”. Their report concluded that the situation in the “divided and fractious” Thirsk and Malton association had “spiralled out of control and was potentially damaging to the party”.
Major Steveney, who could not be contacted, told the Yorkshire Post: “I thought the report was a travesty. We wrote to the party asking for an apology in July, and they still have not replied.”
David Cameron is standing by Ms McIntosh, saying she is a valuable MP and chairwoman of a Commons committee. Local members complain she does not spend enough time in her constituency.