Blow to Howard as activists back Flight

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Indy Politics

Michael Howard failed in his attempt to end the turmoil in the Conservative Party over his decision to sack Howard Flight as a Tory MP.

The crisis, which has derailed the Tories' general election campaign, deepened when senior local activists in Mr Flight's Arundel and South Downs constituency demanded that he be given the chance to address them before they accept his deselection. The MP had suggested at a private dinner last week that the Tories would cut spending by more than the £35bn they have admitted.

Mr Howard tried in vain to end the row by launching his party's policies on child care. Instead he faced a barrage of questions about his sacked deputy chairman and, clearly embarrassed, cut short the press conference after there was not a single question about the party's childcare proposals. "I don't regret the decision that I took at all," he said. "I have made my position clear. I am sure that that will be appreciated in all quarters of the Conservative Party.

"It is about the suggestion that the Conservative Party is saying one thing before an election and intends to do something else afterwards. That is not the case. If you believe in honesty you have to act on it and that is why I took the very difficult decision I took on Friday."

But senior Tories admitted privately that the continuing stand-off with Mr Flight, who is refusing to go quietly and was also sacked as a deputy chairman of the party, had put a question mark over Mr Howard's attempt to show strong leadership. "It's a shambles," said one shadow minister. "A week ago, we were setting the agenda in the election; now we look in disarray."

David Mellor, a former Tory cabinet minister, said Mr Howard's treatment of Mr Flight was "outrageous, cruel and heartless" and that he was "ashamed" of his actions. "It is a silly mess all because Howard thought that he was going to prove he was a strong leader and, frankly, so far all he has managed to prove is that actually he is a rather fumbling and inept leader on this matter," he said. "To throw a man out of Parliament for having an intellectual argument is wrong."

Mr Howard now faces a trial of strength with the 2,000 members of Arundel and South Downs Conservative Association, one of the wealthiest and largest in the country. Baroness O'Cathain, its president, backed Mr Flight's call for an extraordinary meeting of the association to hear his case and said she felt "a grave injustice" has been done. Lady O'Cathain said many ordinary party members were deeply upset.

"It has come as a huge blow to the constituency. It is just disaster after disaster after disaster," she said. "They are going round like headless chickens. They are really in bereavement - grief status - because I don't think people realise just what a brilliant constituency MP Howard has been."

Tory sources disclosed the party leadership was in contact with senior figures from the association to try to defuse the row but stressed there would be no reprieve for Mr Flight. The party leadership is already looking at a list of candidates who could replace him and were preparing to hand the local party its shortlist.

The Tories insisted Mr Howard's decision was in line with the party's rules. A statement from the party said: "Associations are not free to select whoever they chose. They can only select someone from the UK parliamentary list. The Conservative whip has been withdrawn from Howard Flight. He is therefore no longer on the UK parliamentary list. He therefore cannot be adopted as a Conservative candidate in Arundel and South Downs or any other constituency."

Mr Flight, who is considering legal action, said he would abide by his local party's decision. "I have a loyalty to them, they selected me and they, if you like, dispose of me or keep me. I am advised that that is the correct constitutional position," he said.

Ian McCartney, the Labour Party chairman, said the sacking of Mr Flight was a case of "unfair dismissal". He refused to say whether his party had been involved in taping Mr Flight's outspoken remarks and passing them to the press. "This is a desperate attempt at diversion by the Tory party and their friends in the Tory press. This is an attempt to divert us from the big issues," he said.