Flight's legal bid prevents Howard from ending row

The grassroots rebellion against Michael Howard's attempt to sack Howard Flight as an MP has grown as the row again scuppered the Tory leader's attempt to turn the spotlight back to his party's general election policies.

Mr Flight yesterday said his lawyers had concluded that the Tory leadership had breached the party's rules because only his Arundel and South Downs Conservative Association had the power to deselect him as its candidate. He has submitted the legal opinion to Tory headquarters in London and to his local party, where the necessary 50 members have defied Mr Howard by demanding a special meeting to discuss the affair.

There is despair at the highest level of the Conservative Party that the row has derailed its election campaign, and growing criticism in his Shadow Cabinet of Mr Howard's decision to deselect Mr Flight for suggesting the Tories would cut public spending by more than the £35bn they have admitted.

Some senior figures believe the Tory leader made a serious miscalculation by not limiting Mr Flight's punishment to losing his post as a deputy party chairman. They believe the stand-off with his constituency association has prolonged the row and made the Tory leader look weak, not strong as he intended.

For the second day running, Mr Howard cut short a press conference to launch a new policy, this time on immigration, when he faced repeated questions about the Flight affair.

Announcing the QC's opinion, a defiant Mr Flight claimed that, because he had already been reselected by his local party, only it could deselect him. He dismissed as "not correct" the party leadership's claim that it had the final say, but promised to accept the decision of local members if they dropped him.

Mr Howard said: "We have to act in accordance with the rules and constitution and the constitution is very clear. The fundamental point here is, this is about accountability and responsibility. We all have to be accountable for the things we say. We will not say one thing in private and another in public."

Mr Howard's style of leadership was also called into question after the Tories in effect closed down their local association in Slough after deselecting two successive candidates. Party headquarters has imposed Sheila Gunn, a former press secretary to John Major, as the candidate.

Adrian Hilton was barred for suggesting the signing of the Maastricht treaty was an act of treason and over articles he wrote about the influence of Catholicism in the European Union. He had been drafted in after Robert Oulds was ditched for being pictured on the internet with a range of guns and rifles and a hunting knife.

Mr Hilton accused Tory bosses of behaving like "little dictators" and treating party members with contempt. He said he would pursue the matter "in law" because "natural justice" had not been done.

After a mole hunt for who leaked to The Times Mr Flight's remarks at a Conservative Way Forward dinner, Tory suspicions centred on Joerg Tretow, a German and a former Labour students' chairman at Queen Mary, University of London. Tory sources said that he was at the event but his friends insisted he was out of the country at the time.

A Labour spokesman said: "This began as a story of Tory panic, became paranoia and has now descended into farce. Their latest so-called revelations are only the most bizarre of many attempts to divert attention from what was said by Howard Flight. The facts are that the meeting that Howard Flight spoke at was open to any member of the public and was widely advertised on the internet. The question of the identity of The Times's source is a matter for that paper and not the Labour Party."

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