David Cameron's hopes of boosting the number of female Conservative MPs at the next election was undermined last night amid farcical scenes over the selection of a woman candidate in a safe Tory seat.
Lucy Frazer, a barrister, was "reaffirmed" as Conservative candidate for South East Cambridgeshire on Friday despite claims that she had been beaten in an open primary by another woman, Heidi Allen, last month.
Despite calls for the local party to rerun the vote, the South East Cambridgeshire Conservative association voted to "reaffirm" Ms Frazer as their candidate. Her Labour opponent claimed it would always be suspected Mrs Frazer was the "second-choice" candidate for the constituency. The decision to appoint her also undermines the legitimacy of the open primary process, which Mr Cameron has held up as an example of his party's effort to rebuild trust in politics.
Although Conservative headquarters were insisting the vote was a matter for the local party, the selection of Mrs Frazer has ramifications for the Prime Minister because he is under pressure to increase the number of Tory women in Parliament. Only a third of candidates selected for key target seats in 2015 so far are female. While both contenders for the seat were female, lingering doubts about Mrs Frazer's selection will overshadow the quest to increase the tally of women.
Last month, South East Cambridgeshire Conservatives held an open primary, in which anyone, rather than only members of the party, can cast their vote, to replace the current MP James Paice, who is retiring. In the final run-off, Ms Allen, an astrophysicist and St Albans district councillor, was beaten by Mrs Frazer by 84 votes to 48. But the controversy erupted last week amid claims that Ms Allen's result was far lower than had been expected. When a local party official took the ballot papers home for an informal recount, the result was wrong, it was alleged, and 23 votes for Ms Allen had been mistakenly awarded to Mrs Frazer.
Because the official had taken the ballot papers home, the local association's president Brian Ashton deemed the entire count invalid, and an emergency meeting was called, amid demands for a recount.
Steve Tierney, a Wisbech Conservative town councillor, wrote on the Conservative Home website: "What a mess! Seems bizarre it could even happen. Every count I've ever seen has been scrupulous."
Yet on Friday evening, at a stormy meeting in Ely, the local association voted to reaffirm Mrs Frazer in the interests of "party unity", according to the local newspaper, the Wisbech Standard.
Huw Jones, Labour's parliamentary candidate for the seat, told the Cambridge News: "However the Tories spin their decision, there will always be a suspicion that Lucy was their second choice.
"While people in south-east Cambridgeshire are resorting to food banks, we need first-choice politicians to be concentrating on sorting out the cost-of-living crisis. "South-east Cambridgeshire deserves better than second best."
But Shona Johnstone, a former Conservative councillor and former county council leader, tweeted that she was "delighted" that Mrs Frazer had been adopted as candidate.
Conservative Campaign Headquarters refused to comment on the dispute, saying only: "This was a local association matter that has now been resolved by them." It is believed the local association will put out a statement this weekend.
Mrs Frazer, a graduate of Cambridge University, is a QC, state school governor and a mentor for children from low-income families. She has two children with her husband, David. After her selection in December she said she was "thrilled", adding: I hope to bring my experience of working with a wide range of businesses to increase growth. I am interested in improving state education in the constituency and the road and rail infrastructure. I am looking forward to working with and for everyone in the constituency."
She could not be contacted for comment last night.