Clarke faces local bid to deselect him from his seat

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Kenneth Clarke has been rebuked by Tory activists in his constituency who are furious that he shared a pro-European platform with Tony Blair.

Kenneth Clarke has been rebuked by Tory activists in his constituency who are furious that he shared a pro-European platform with Tony Blair.

Last night Tory Eurosceptics admitted the unprecedented criticism marked the opening shot in a concerted attempt to deselect Mr Clarke and other prominent Europhiles. The sceptics will seek to use new rules forcing Tory MPs to seek reselection to oust former ministers David Curry and Ian Taylor and put pressure on Michael Heseltine to stand down at the next general election. "We want them all out," said one sceptic.

Labour will seize on the moves as more evidence to support Mr Blair's claims that the Tories are "lurching to the right" and pursuing an extremist policy on Europe.

Mr Clarke is confident of seeing off the threat to sack him in the Nottinghamshire constituency of Rushcliffe he has represented since 1970. His allies insist he retains the support of most local Tories but admit many are seething that he and Mr Heseltine joined Mr Blair at last month's launch of the Britain In Europe campaign.

"Ken's views on Europe are well known but this was seen as supping with the Devil," Nigel Cutts, president of the Rushcliffe Conservative Association, said yesterday. "A large number of members, myself included, were not happy with him. Blair is pretty much a hate figure for Conservative Party members."

The Bingham branch of the association has passed a motion criticising Mr Clarke. His action has been discussed by the Rushcliffe party's executive which, under the new rules, will decide whether to reselect him automatically or order a contest to choose the local party's candidate. Mr Cutts told Mr Clarke that local members were infuriated that he had been "used" by Mr Blair. "He assured me he had no intention of sharing a platform with Mr Blair again," said Mr Cutts.

Although the Tory leadership is furious at the behaviour of Mr Clarke and Mr Heseltine, William Hague has insisted there will be no purge of pro-European Tories. But allies of the two former cabinet heavyweights accused Mr Hague of giving tacit support to the local moves against them.

While the four leading Tory Europhiles believe they can all retain their seats, they are worried that the looming reselection battles will damage the party's image by reigniting its "civil war" over Europe.

"The rules were designed to oust the likes of Neil Hamilton [the former MP for Tatton] but the headbangers are using them against us," said one Europhile. "They will make us look like the Labour Party when it was run by the Bennites."

Mr Taylor, facing criticism in his Esher constituency, said last night: "The Conservative Party must be careful not to engage in the ideological expulsions that damaged the Labour Party for a decade in the 1980s."

Referring to the Democracy Movement launched by the millionaire businessman Paul Sykes, Mr Taylor said: "There are too many zealots outside the Conservative Party trying to undermine the stability of the party." Activists in Skipton and Ripon are demanding an "open selecting" in the hope of ousting Mr Curry, who resigned from the Tory frontbench with Mr Taylor in 1997 in protest at Mr Hague's hardline policy on Europe.

Mr Heseltine, who has represented Henley since 1974, is being pressed to stand down at the next election following his appearance with Mr Blair, but is keeping his options open. "People are unhappy with his behaviour, not his views," said one prominent local Tory. "He allowed himself to be used by Alastair Campbell" [Mr Blair's press secretary].

Another Tory in the constituency said: "He must be aware of the anger and dismay and I suspect he will stand down graciously. We need a younger version of Michael Heseltine, not someone whose career is behind them."

* Britons expect the European Parliament to have more power over them than Westminster in 20 years, according to a Mori poll for The Economist. Some 44 per cent believe the Strasbourg parliament and EU would have most influence, compared with 22 per cent who opt for Westminster.

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