Jubilant Labour condemns Tories' 'secret agenda' of spending cuts

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The Conservative Party's general election campaign is in disarray after a senior Tory MP openly defied Michael Howard's decision to sack him as a candidate for suggesting the party would impose deeper public spending cuts than had been announced.

The Conservative Party's general election campaign is in disarray after a senior Tory MP openly defied Michael Howard's decision to sack him as a candidate for suggesting the party would impose deeper public spending cuts than had been announced.

Howard Flight accepted his dismissal as a deputy chairman of the party for making a highly damaging speech saying that a Tory government would seek to cut public spending by much more than the £35bn it admits.

A jubilant Labour leadership hailed Mr Flight's gaffe as confirmation of its repeated claims that the Tories had a "secret agenda" of huge spending cuts.

Although the Tories denied the charge, Mr Flight's remarks at a dinner of the Thatcherite Conservative Way Forward group threatened to derail the party's election campaign. The Tories have worked hard to transform their public image by promising to match Labour's spending on services such as health and education.

Mr Howard's attempt to limit the damage by showing decisive leadership appeared to backfire. He announced he had withdrawn the party whip from the millionaire MP who would not now be the candidate for Arundel and South Downs. But Mr Flight enjoys strong support in his constituency and some local activists want him to carry on.

On a day that senior Tories referred to as "Bad Friday", a furious Mr Howard said: "Howard Flight will not be a Conservative candidate at this election. We only have one spending plan. It is clear and it is costed."

But Mr Flight compounded Mr Howard's embarrassment by refusing to accept that his parliamentary career was over. After a telephone conversation with the Tory leader yesterday, he said: "He [Mr Howard] indicated that that was his view and I indicated that it would have to go through the appropriate constitutional process because I was not going to withdraw as a candidate."

Mr Flight said he believed he had the support of his constituency party. "We will have to see what my local association has to say," he said.

Angela Litchfield, the local party chairman, said last night that it would be selecting a new candidate shortly "in the interests of the Conservative Party." She added: "Howard Flight has been a first-class constituency MP and has made a huge contribution to the party over many years. We are all extremely sad at what has happened."

Mr Flight, who was the Tories' special envoy to the City, played a key role in the development of the party's tax and spending strategy. He set up the review by the company doctor David James which identified £35bn of savings.

Before making his speech on Wednesday night, Mr Flight had been warned by the Tories not to go "off message". His remarks were tape-recorded and leaked to a newspaper.

The MP denied contradicting Tory policy, blaming media spin and Labour "lies" but regretted using words that were capable of misinterpretation. "There is no secret plan for more cuts," he insisted.

Mr Howard moved to prevent the affair scuppering his attempt to appeal to voters by making a limited number of spending proposals. He also contrasted his "totally straight" approach with Tony Blair's "broken promises", saying: "We will not promise one thing before an election and do something else after an election. We will not say one thing in private and another thing in public. Everyone in my party has to sign up to that. If not, they're out."

Mr Flight's speech was seized on by Labour. The Prime Minister said the Tories had not changed and were still committed to Thatcherism.

Alan Milburn, Labour's election co-ordinator, called on the Tories to publish the James review: "This is a significant moment in the pre-election campaign. What is important about what Mr Flight has said is that he has revealed that, for the Tories, £35bn of cuts is just the start - the tip of the iceberg."

John Reid, the Health Secretary, said: "Michael Howard ended Howard Flight's political career for the grievous crime of telling the truth. This is panic leadership driven by the headlines of the day."

Vincent Cable, Treasury spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said: "It is now clear that the Tory party has a hidden agenda of real cuts in public services."

WHERE THE AXE WOULD FALL

The Tories accept they would spend £35bn a year less than Labour by the 2011-12 financial year. They insist that does not mean they would cutpublic spending, but rather raise it at a slightly lower rate than Labour.

This would allow them to match Labour's budgets for schools, the NHS, overseas aid, transport and benefits and spend slightly more on police, defence and pensions.

They have identified £35bn of savings in government spending, £23bn of which would be ploughed back into frontline services. Of the remaining £12bn, £8bn would be used to reduce borrowing, leaving £4bn for tax cuts.

Some £1.3bn of that would reduce pensioners' council tax bills. The Tories will announce shortly how they would spend the remaining £2.7bn. They are likely to help low-paid workers by raising the threshold of the bottom 10p-in-the-pound income tax.

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