Party leaders fear grassroots revolt over rogue candidates will 'distract' from election campaign

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Indy Politics

A senior shadow cabinet member has admitted that the Tory pre-election recovery has foundered because of the furore over Howard Flight's sacking.

As Michael Howard, the Tory leader, desperately tried to draw a line under the affair, David Davis hinted at doubts over the handling of the episode.

The Shadow Home Secretary told Sky TV yesterday that he backed the decision. But he added: "It's a distraction, there's no doubt about that. But Michael had to make a judgement about what to do on that. He made that judgement and he stuck by it."

Mr Flight, who was dismissed for suggesting that the Tories had not revealed the true extent of their plans to cut government spending, has vowed to fight his removal as candidate for the safe seat of Arundel and South Downs. He said his lawyers had advised him that the Tory leadership cannot block his candidacy.

Party chiefs are appalled by the prospect of a trial of strength between party headquarters and local activists backing Mr Flight. They already face a separate rebellion from activists in Slough opposed to the removal of their candidate.

Andrew Mackay, the deputy chairman in charge of candidate selection, called in officials from Arundel to begin the search for a replacement for Mr Flight. A shortlist will be finalised at a meeting of the association executive on Monday and presented to local members on Wednesday.

For the third day running, the controversy overshadowed a policy initiative by Mr Howard, who travelled to Blackpool to deliver a stinging attack on Labour plans for defence cuts. The Tory leader had to be smuggled in through the venue's kitchens to avoid questions from waiting journalists on the Flight affair.

Oliver Letwin, the Shadow Chancellor, said the Conservatives had learnt lessons from public ambiguity over their spending plans at the last election as he defended the sacking of Mr Flight. Mr Letwin said the party leadership had been "absolutely transparent" about its detailed plans for savings, spending and tax cuts up until 2007/08. He added: "It wasn't an easy decision for [Michael Howard] to take, it hasn't been easy emotionally for anybody involved. But what he was making clear with that dramatic gesture was that we mean to act in government exactly as we set out in opposition."

Yesterday, the former Tory MP Teresa Gorman accused Mr Howard of "spitting in the eye" of Mr Flight by blocking him as a candidate. She said: "Mr Howard has more than something of the night about him. He has something of the knife about him. Howard Flight deserved no such brutality."

A Tory activist who claims to have been barred from the shortlist for the seat of Surrey Heath to replace Nick Hawkins, who was ousted by local members, mounted a stinging attack last night on the party leadership. Ian Bell said: "They basically excluded the local Tory people. It's a dictatorship - that's what it looks to me."

Gary Mond, who chaired the meeting where Mr Flight made his remarks, has blamed the storm on Labour spin. In a letter to The Independent, he said: "All Mr Flight was saying was that a Conservative government would need to review the situation once elected. During questions he vigorously defended Conservative Party policy - and Michael Howard - from criticisms that the Conservatives were not being more radical."

* Mr Howard has denounced planned defence cuts as a "stab in the back" for men and women sent to war by Tony Blair. Infantry battalions are being reduced from 40 to 36 under a shake-up which will create a Scottish "super-regiment". The Tories have pledged to spend £2.7bn to save the regiments, if elected.

MARTYRS FOR THE CAUSE?

HOWARD FLIGHT: ARUNDEL & SOUTH DOWNS

Sacked: 24 March 2005

Mutiny is in the air in one of the Tories' truest-blue seats, a mixture of prosperous towns and picturesque countryside. Party unity in this West Sussex constituency has been shattered by the rapid dismissal of Howard Flight for his ill-judged comments on public spending.

Stephen Brookman, a member of the local Tory association's executive council, has no doubt who is to blame for the débâcle. "Conservative die-hards will weather the internal storms. But it worries me that the voters we're trying to attract back may look on Michael Howard's actions as knee-jerk or unwise."

Paul Wood, a hotel manager, had a reassuring message for the party: "I'm certain this area is going to stay Conservative." But he added: "I've spoken to other people and they hope Howard Flight can stay. I was a Conservative, but now I haven't made my mind up for the next election, I'm not sure how I'm going to vote."

DANNY KRUGER: SEDGEFIELD

Sacked: 15 March 2005

As Tory chairman in Tony Blair's constituency, Nick Crass is used to fighting the odds. At the last election, the Prime Minister held Sedgefield by an overwhelming 17,713 votes over the Conservatives.

He has already had to cope with the departure of the party's candidate, Danny Kruger, after remarking that the Tories planned a "period of creative destruction" in public services. Mr Crass admitted his task had been made even more daunting by the controversy over Howard Flight. "By the election I suspect this row will have died off. But it's rather embarrassing for us in the short term," he said. "The bigger problem has been the muddying of our message over cutting bureaucracy in public services. That could and should actually be a vote-winner and this is not helping us get our message across."

Gerry Waller, 72, a life-long Tory, said: "The local candidate story has been forgotten, but I think this latest dismissal will rumble on for a long time."

ADRIAN HILTON: SLOUGH

Sacked: 15 March, 2005

The Conservative soap opera in the Berkshire town has seen Robert Oulds ditched over his enthusiasm for gun sports and Adrian Hilton deselected for denouncing the signing of the Maastricht treaty by John Major as treason. The imposition of a third candidate has infuriated local party stalwarts.

According to Kevin Pond, the treasurer of Slough Conservative Association, the Tories' slim chances of success in Slough - the sort of constituency they need to win if they are to form a government - have been destroyed by Michael Howard. He said: "We are extremely disappointed and angry at what Mr Howard has done. All this would have been history in no time if he had kept quiet."

Derek Cryer, the deputy leader of Slough council's Tory group, said: "Hard-working people have put in a lot of work for Slough and it has all been taken away. This is a sad episode ... and there is a significant split in opinion over the rights and wrongs of it all."

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