David Cameron has put out a call to absolute political beginners to apply to become Conservative MPs. He wants outsiders like Joanna Lumley to be added to his party's list of candidates, in a drive to restore confidence in Parliament.
There are seats going for the asking, because four sitting Tory MPs have already been forced out by the expenses scandal. The latest vacancy is the previously solid Tory seat of Bracknell, Berkshire, where the sitting MP, Andrew Mackay, has agreed to stand down at the election after being spoken to by Mr Cameron. The Conservative leader stopped short yesterday of saying that he had actually ordered Mr Mackay to retire early, but said the Bracknell MP had agreed that the game was up after a "very straightforward" conversation.
To be a Conservative candidate in Bracknell, or any of the other safe Tory seats that are suddenly up for grabs, you will not need to agree with Mr Cameron on every issue. You will not need to be a paid up Conservative either. "What I'm going to do today, particularly because there are a number of MPs retiring from parliament, is I am going to reopen the Conservative candidates' list to anybody who wants to apply," Mr Cameron told BBC1's Andrew Marr Show yesterday.
"They may not have had an involvement with the party in the past, but if you want to come in and if you believe in public service, if you want to help us clean up politics, if you share our values, come and be a Conservative candidate." He added that many of the candidates will be chosen in "open" primaries, in which anyone living in the constituency has the right to vote, regardless of whether they are Conservative Party members. This method gives outsiders unknown to local party activists a better chance.
Asked whether he wanted "your Joanna Lumleys or whatever" entering the Commons as Conservative MPs, Mr Cameron replied: "Yes, we've got to open up the talent that is available, and this is an opportunity to do that."
Iain Dale, the Conservative blogger who earlier tried unsuccessfully to be adopted for the safe seat of Maidstone in Kent, welcomed the change but warned that it might clash with Mr Cameron's insistent demands for an immediate election – a demand which he repeated yesterday.
"When you consider that there are already many hundreds of people on the list, who will have comparatively few seats to fight over, they will undoubtedly see it as a bit of a snub – but they shouldn't," Mr Dale said in his blog. "The A-List is effectively dead. If constituencies agree to hold open primaries, they don't use the A-List. And I imagine now that all seats will be forced to hold open primaries anyway."
Similarly to Gordon Brown, Mr Cameron has been accused of inconsistency in his handling of the expenses row, because he has come down hard on members of the old Tory "squirearchy" caught up in it, while seemingly being more lenient towards political allies on the modernising wing of the Conservative Party.
But Mr Mackay was one of Mr Cameron's closest advisers, and had hoped to save his political career by putting himself through an acrimonious public meeting in his Bracknell constituency. Mr Mackay had claimed that a house in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, where his wife Julie Kirkbride is the local MP, was his main home; but she claimed that they lived in London. Thus they were able to claim for two second homes. Mr Cameron described this yesterday as "one of the more serious cases" involving a Tory MP.
There have also been questions asked about Mr Cameron's own claims for a second home, which came to more than £81,400 over four years, because his marriage to Samantha, daughter of an immensely rich Yorkshire landowner Sir Reginald Sheffield, has reputedly made him a millionaire.
It was put to him at a public meeting in his Witney constituency at the weekend that he is worth £30m. "It's simply not true, absolutely not true," he said yesterday, without offering an accurate figure.
He added: "I have two homes. I have a home in London, which is my main home – that's where my children go to school and my wife works in London as well; and then I have a home in the constituency, which I claim the second-home allowance for. And I've tried always to claim for what I thought was reasonable, so in fact I never claimed for furniture or for food or for decorations or for anything like that."
Other places where members of the public can bid for a safe Conservative seat include: Gosport, Hampshire, where the sitting MP, Peter Viggers, claimed off the taxpayer for a floating duck house; Sleaford and North Hykeham, in Lincolnshire, where Douglas Hogg claimed for having his moat cleared; and Totnes, in Devon, where the MP Sir Anthony Steen said that criticism of his expenses was motivated by jealousy.
*David Blunkett, the former Home Secretary, yesterday denied speculation he was looking to get back into the Cabinet. A spokesman said: "He is particularly irritated by speculation, which he believes is designed to cause controversy about the future of [Communities Secretary] Hazel Blears."