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Conservative MP couple to stand down

Conservative MPs Sir Nicholas and Ann Winterton are to stand down as MPs at the next general election, they announced today.

The husband-and-wife Tory backbenchers were recently named in the Daily Telegraph as having claimed £80,000 in parliamentary allowances for a flat owned by a trust controlled by their children, but party sources said it was not known whether the expenses furore played a part in their decision to retire.

In a letter to party leader David Cameron, Sir Nicholas and Lady Winterton said that they could no longer "maintain the hectic pace" of political life and wanted to step down in order to spend more time with their family.

Sir Nicholas, 71, has been MP for Macclesfield in Cheshire for 37 years, while his 68-year-old wife has represented neighbouring Congleton for almost 26.

In his letter to Mr Cameron, Sir Nicholas wrote: "Parliament and my constituency have been my life for almost 38 years (and politics in general for almost 50 years) and in Ann's case for more than 26 years, but when you feel as we do that maybe the years are taking their toll and perhaps we can no longer represent Macclesfield and Congleton with the some level of energy and enthusiasm as in the past, we have reached the conclusion that we should pass the baton to a younger person because both Congleton and Macclesfield deserve the very best."

Mr Cameron responded: "I completely understand your decision to stand down and appreciate that these must not have been easy decisions to make.

"I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for the service, energy and commitment both of you have demonstrated to Parliament and to your respective constituencies. Never before has a husband and wife team served the House of Commons for a total of 65 years and this is something you can both be very proud of."

Last year Sir Nicholas and Lady Winterton were rebuked by the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner John Lyon over their expense claims on their London flat which he said broke House of Commons rules.

The Wintertons bought the £700,000 property in the early 1990s, and subsequently paid off the mortgage. In February 2002 they gifted the property to a family trust in order to sidestep death duties.

From that point, the long-serving MPs occupied it as tenants, and paid the trust market rent using their Commons second home allowances. The family is estimated to have received more than £120,000 in rent from the taxpayer, and could save hundreds of thousands of pounds in inheritance tax. Mr Cameron described the arrangement as "indefensible".

The claims were stopped in September, after the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee found that they had been in breach of the rules since July 2006. The affair hit the headlines again earlier this month as part of the Telegraph's ongoing investigation into MPs' expenses.

Shortly after the Commissioner's report last year, Sir Nicholas told his local paper that Mr Cameron's "mafia" wanted to force him and his wife out, but insisted he was determined to fight the upcoming election for the Tories.

With respective majorities of 11,401 and 8,246 in the 2005 general election, Macclesfield and Congleton are solid Conservative safe seats which will be very attractive to would-be candidates, and fierce selection battles can be expected.