Critics of David Cameron last night lost an acrimonious battle for control of an influential Conservative backbench committee with direct access to the Prime Minister.
The contest for positions on the 1922 Committee had exposed growing fault-lines and tensions within the party after a badly-received Budget and the Tories' poor local election results.
New MPs presenting themselves as modernisers emerged triumphant as they ousted leading critics of the Government, including Christopher Chope and Peter Bone from posts on the committee.
The elections were marred by accusations of dirty tricks between rival camps of MPs. An anonymous letter was circulated among Tories calling for "modernisers" to be stopped, while Mr Cameron's critics claimed that Downing Street was trying to silence dissent by getting its supporters on to the executive. The 1922 Committee is designed to alert ministers to backbenchers' concerns about the direction the Government is taking.
The elections became a struggle between longer-serving MPs, who have been openly critical of the Prime Minister's leadership, and younger "progressive" Tories demanding greater loyalty to Mr Cameron.
The 301 Group – named after the number of MPs needed to obtain an overall majority at the next election – organised a slate of MPs first elected in 2010 to stand in the elections. They succeeded in securing a series of posts in the ballot, which was open to backbenchers and ministerial aides. Karen Bradley, a 301 member, and Nick de Bois won the two joint-secretary posts.
Mr Chope, who complained about the "massive watering-down" of Tory manifesto promises within weeks of the Coalition's creation, was defeated for the post. Mark Pritchard, another Cameron critic, had voluntarily stood down as the other 1922 secretary.
Eight of the 12 MPs elected to the committee's executive are from the 301 group, including George Eustice, George Hollingbery and Priti Patel. Prominent Cameron critic Peter Bone was ejected, although the right-winger Bernard Jenkin and the independent-minded Steve Baker were elected.