Spicer is elected Tory MPs' 'shop steward'

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Indy Politics

Sir Michael Spicer was elected as the "shop steward" of Tory MPs last night and will now play a key role in overseeing the election of a new party leader.

Sir Michael, a prominent Eurosceptic and former transport minister, held urgent talks last night with campaign managers of the rival candidates for the leadership about the timing of the election.

He said that under the Tories' rules, he was required to arrange a contest "as soon as practicable". The two options were for nominations to close at noon today or a week today.

The timetable is sensitive, with allies of the front runner Michael Portillo calling for the contest to take place as soon as possible whilerival candidates press for a longer election.

Some MPs are worried that William Hague's successor will not be chosen until mid-September, leaving a vacuum over the next few months. But others argue that the decisive ballot of the party's 300,000 members cannot be held in August because many of them will be on holiday. They oppose a short contest next month, saying that party members should have time to debate the merits of the two candidates who go into the ballot.

The two names will be chosen by the 166 Tory MPs over the next few weeks and the first ballot could take place as early as next week. The bottom-placed of the five candidates would drop out and further ballots held until the top two emerge.

In last night's ballot, Sir Michael landed the chairmanship of the 1922 Committee with 79 votes, defeating Gillian Shephard, the former secretary of state for education, who won 66 votes, and John Butterfill, the committee vice-chairman, who won 11.

Sir Michael, the MP for Worcestershire West, succeeds Sir Archie Hamilton, who stood down at the general election. The chairman of the 1922 Committee is seen as a vital link between MPs and the party leader, to whom he reports.

Sir Michael is expected to maintain the low key approach of his predecessor. He said last night: "My objectives now are to ensure the unity of the party and to raise the status of the Parliamentary party." He said MPs should have a bigger role in deciding the party's policies.