Howard sacks MP after she refuses to apologise for dead cocklers joke

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Indy Politics

Ann Winterton defiantly refused to apologise for her racist joke about the Morecambe Bay cockling tragedy yesterday, which led to her expulsion from the Conservative party.

She insisted she would carry on as MP for Congleton despite increasing calls for her to stand down. Mrs Winterton, 62, sparked a fresh Conservative race dispute and earned the wrath of the party's leader, Michael Howard, after joking about the tragedy just weeks after 20 Chinese cocklers were killed by the tide at Bolton-le-Sands. She told a Whitehall dinner a joke about a shark that was sick of eating tuna, and said: "Let's go to Morecambe for a Chinese."

She was condemned yesterday by Mr Howard. He said: "I very much deplore what Ann Winterton said. What she said was unacceptable. I am very sorry indeed she wasn't able to apologise for it. That is why she can no longer be a member of the Parliamentary Conservative Party."

But Mrs Winterton refused to back down. She issued a statement, saying: "I do not intend to comment about recent events, other than to say it has never been my practice to discuss publicly conversations which took place at a private dinner party in a private flat. The decision by my party's leadership will not impact on my ability or determination to represent my constituents."

She appeared briefly on the opposition benches in the Commons during yesterday's Trade and Industry question time, initially sitting near the Ulster Unionist MPs, far from Conservatives.

It is the second time Mrs Winterton has earned the fury of the Tory leadership due to her comments on race. In 2002 she was sacked as a frontbencher by Iain Duncan Smith for making a joke about Pakistanis at a rugby club dinner.

Yesterday Tony Blair refused to enter the fray. But Mrs Winterton's comments were condemned by Ben Bradshaw, the Fisheries minister, during a visit to the Morecambe Bay cockle beds. He said: "Her comments were appalling and in the worst possible taste, but her future is a matter for the Conservative Party and for Michael Howard. People will make their own decisions about whether they think any action taken against her is sufficient."

Geraldine Smith, Labour MP for Morecambe, added: "She has been an absolute disgrace. Her behaviour is in such a stark contrast to the way local people reacted, which was shock and sadness at such a waste of life."

Roland Domleo, a Conservative councillor who is also the leader of Congleton Borough Council, said: "I am just so shocked she has got herself into this situation again. The first joke she made two years ago was tasteless and offensive, but this one is just sick. It's even worse than last time.

"Last time we put it down to a lack of judgement and she was able to carry on. When someone does the same thing again, you are left thinking. I'm sure the people of Congleton will be disgusted and will want to know how she could make such a grave error. She has caused great offence and upset a great number of people."

Peter Kolker, chairman of the Congleton Conservative Constituency Association, said: "Her remark this week was not even a joke. It was racist, unfunny and offensive. She has let herself down very badly and she ought to apologise to the Chinese community and to all the people she offended. It is the local association who chooses candidates and I will have to speak to my colleagues and find out what people think."