Conservatives in Harrogate: Media excluded from debate on democracy: Accountability confined 'behind closed doors' - Recession regrets surface - Labour attack

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Indy Politics
THE CONSERVATIVE Party debated major issues of democracy and accountability for the first time in decades yesterday - but behind closed doors.

Party managers took the rare step of excluding the media from the beginning of the first session of the 1993 Central Council meeting in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, while 'reformist' members pressed for a half of the party's new board of management to be directly elected by postal ballot.

But beyond the drawn curtains separating the press from the conference, the less radical changes put forward by Sir Norman Fowler, chairman of the party organisation, were approved.

The new board is a response to constituency clamour for greater democracy and the party's dire finances after the 1992 elections. It contains only two directly elected members of the National Union, the voluntary wing of the party. The rest are Tory party grandees: Sir Norman, Angela Rumbold, deputy party chairman, Sir Peter Bowness, Association of Metropolitan Authorities Conservative group leader, Sir Basil Feldman, executive committee chairman of the National Union, Sir Marcus Fox, MP for Shipley and chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, Charles Hambro, senior party treasurer, Paul Judge, Conservative Central Office director-general, Sir Christopher Prout, Conservative Group leader at the European Parliament, and Sir Allen Sheppard, chairman of Grand Metropolitan, the brewing group.

Sir Norman said that the board would be similar to a company board of directors, with significant spending decisions and weaknesses in constituency organisations referred to it. Since taking over as party chairman last May, Sir Norman has cut annual spending from pounds 12m a year to pounds 7m.

Payments through the Conservative Party, such as the anonymous donation of pounds 18,414 of legal fees for Norman Lamont, the Chancellor, to eject a 'sex therapist' from his London flat, would 'in all probability' go to the board in future, Sir Norman said, together with major expenditure - such as that on refurbishment of Central Office. Recent expensive refurbishment was the cause of much of the party's current financial difficulty.

During an earlier heated debate, party reformists scored a victory after the conference decided that party 'model' rules should not have to be approved by the Central Council. That cuts down central control by the National Union, with significant control over the rules being retained by constituencies. Activists feared that the change would have been the first step towards Conservative Central Office extracting more cash from wealthy constituencies. The current total deficit at Central Office is pounds 19m.

The reforming wing of the party also fought off a move to make the constituencies submit accounts to Central Office. Sir Basil played down the move. Submitting financial information would not be a condition of affiliation, he said, 'but I would be very surprised if a lot of them don't submit accounts'.

Sharon Spiers, a trustee of the Charter Movement group that has agitated for greater democracy and accountability, said: 'The way the debate went shows the party is afraid of democracy. But the way the votes went shows the party wants accountability.'

Spurning any notion of a quota for women, the conference voted to end the automatic representation of women on the National Union executive.