Activists demand sweeping changes to rules on electing party leader

Conservative Party Conference: Elections
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Indy Politics

Conservative MPs and grassroots activists demanded sweeping changes to the way the party elects its leader, in an attempt to avoid a repeat of this summer's divisive and bruising contest.

Senior Tories admit that the three-month election campaign, characterised by bitter infighting by the party's rival factions, left deep scars.

At a behind-closed-doors session of 500 local party representatives in Blackpool, activists demanded a much shorter contest in future leadership elections, and called for party members to be given the right to choose from a list of more then two candidates.

Under the present system, a shortlist of two is chosen by Tory MPs, a move that denied Michael Portillo a place in the decisive members' ballot even though he finished just one vote behind the eventual winner, Iain Duncan Smith, when the MPs voted.

David Davis, the Tory chairman, told the meeting that the rules would be reviewed, but made it clear that he wanted to see them fine-tuned rather than overhauled. He said the two-horse race under the existing system ensured that the winner had a clear mandate.

The grassroots demands were given strong support by Andrew Tyrie, the MP for Chichester, who was campaign manager for Kenneth Clarke, who lost to Mr Duncan Smith in the election. He said: "The party cannot afford to go through such an unnecessarily bruising contest as the one we have just experienced. The leader must be chosen more quickly, to reduce the opportunities for the press to talk up differences of view, rifts, splits and factions."

My Tyrie added that party members should be given a choice of three MPs instead of two and that the members' ballot should last only two weeks, with 12 hustings meetings in every part of the country during that period.

Mr Tyrie also backed moves that would give more control over future elections to the party chairman and take it away from MPs. He called for closer scrutiny of campaign spending by candidates and a central membership list to prevent members voting more than once.

John Strafford, the chairman of the Campaign for Conservative Democracy, said that this year's contest was "far too long". In future, party members should choose between up to four candidates and be allowed to vote by telephone or on the internet, he said.

Mr Strafford criticised party managers for scrapping a debate on party organisation when the annual conference was shortened to two days because of the terrorist attacks in America. "It is giving in to the terrorists; we should have continued with our conference as normal," he said.