A senior Tory MP, who has accepted a £120,000-a-year directorship from the Harrods owner Mohamed Al Fayed, is facing moves by furious party activists in his constituency to have him sacked.
Conservative Central Office is giving its discreet backing to the plan to deselect Charles Wardle amid fears that his link with Mr Fayed will revive the spectre of "Tory sleaze". Allegations by the Harrods boss about Tory MPs being prepared to take "cash for questions" seriously damaged John Major's government.
Ironically, Mr Wardle turned down Mr Fayed's request for a British passport when he was a Home Office minister in 1993. His surprise decision this week to become a director of Harrods has angered some Tory MPs and party members in his Bexhill and Battle constituency. His local critics are angry that the 60-year-old MP made no mention, when he was reselected to fight the next general election in January, that he had been talking to Mr Fayed about the job since last summer. They say the local party was presented with a "fait accompli" when Mr Wardle told it about his new post last month, and reject his claims that it had been fully informed.
The move to oust him is revealed in a letter to The Independent today by Alistair Birrell, who was, until recently, the chairman of the Bexhill and Battle Tory association.
He calls on Mr Wardle to agree to stand for re-selection again. Mr Birrell said: "This would give members the opportunity to endorse - or otherwise - Mr Wardle's directorship of Harrods, which has come under fire not only from a number of newspapers but, as I am constantly being told on the telephone, from many members of the association". A senior Conservative source at Westminster said: "We will let democracy take its course at local level." A Tory MP added: "Charles Wardle has upset a lot of his colleagues at Westminster. It is astonishing that he could take this post. It lets Labour off the hook over packing the House of Lords with 'Tony's cronies' and allows it to point to Tory sleaze."
Mr Wardle, who was not available for comment last night, has insisted his new post was cleared with Tory whips and Elizabeth Filkin, Parliament's anti-sleaze watchdog, and said that the feedback from local party activists had been "supportive." Mr Wardle has said: "I will not be required or requested to promote, ask questions, make speeches, or otherwise represent or lobby in Parliament, Mohamed Fayed's private or business interests or those of his family."