Tory: Are you now, or have you ever been, a secondary modern pupil?

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Indy Politics

"As you know this is a very upmarket and middle-class constituency - how will you cope, coming from a secondary modern?" This was one of the questions put yesterday to Derek Conway, one of the hopefuls at a selection meeting for candidates for the blue chip Conservative seat of Kensington and Chelsea.

"As you know this is a very upmarket and middle-class constituency - how will you cope, coming from a secondary modern?" This was one of the questions put yesterday to Derek Conway, one of the hopefuls at a selection meeting for candidates for the blue chip Conservative seat of Kensington and Chelsea.

"Mr Chairman, it gets worse. I was actually brought up on a housing estate..." replied Mr Conway, adding that he had, despite these handicaps, been a whip in John Major's government and vice-chamberlain of Her Majesty's household.

They liked that, and the former MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham made it to a shortlist of six for the late Alan Clark's former constituency. He joins Michael Portillo, the former secretary of state for defence, whose supporters were celebrating what they see as a big step in his march back to the Commons and a future leadership challenge to William Hague.

Mr Portillo saw off another ex-MP, the fellow right-winger Phillip Oppenheim, who failed to make the list. The others who did make it were: Pamela Chesters, the Tory leader on Camden Council; Warwick Lightfoot, a local councillor; Mark Francois, a councillor from Basildon; and Hugo Swire, a former director of Sotheby's.

Local party officials were saying last night that Mr Portillo may not have as easy a canter to the nomination as many have assumed. Mr Conway, married with three children, including two sons at Harrow, appears to be emerging as a late but increasingly fancied outsider. "He was impressive and has the right credentials. There is also a bit of a backlash against the perception that this is just a rubber stamping exercise for Portillo," said one committee member.

Mr Portillo, who appeared for his interview on Saturday, is believed to have been questioned about his confession of homosexual encounters in his younger days. His wife Caroline did not accompany him to the meeting, as is usual in the party.

Nineteen candidates were interviewed over two days, having survived the first chop at Conservative Central Office. The party chairman, Michael Ancram, is said personally to have whittled the list down from more than a hundred. Among the casualties were the former MP and writer on espionage Rupert Allason and the maverick right-wing journalist Peter Hitchens.

Those appearing yesterday faced the daunting prospect of vetting by Kensington and Chelsea's selection committee. Sitting in the middle of a room, facing 23 members across a table, the candidates were offered tea and digestives and then asked to give their 10-minute sales pitch. This was followed by a 20-minute questioning session. Mr Portillo, however, was said to have been given an extra 10 minutes.

Mr Oppenheim is believed to have come a cropper at this stage. One of the interrogators, "a lady of a certain age", sternly asked him about his views on hunting, and Mr Oppenheim is said to have admitted he had a record of being against it. "There followed," said one present, "a certain chill."

Others who fell yesterday included Sheila Gunn, a former press secretary to John Major, and Mary Macleod, a management consultant who had been advising the Royal Family on their future role in Scotland.

The shortlisted six will appear tomorrow before the 150-strong local party executive, which will choose four to go before all constituency party members for a final ballot on 2 November. Supporters of Hugo Swire, who is married to the daughter of the former Tory cabinet minister Sir John Nott, are claiming that he is emerging as a dark horse. But, according to the Kensington and Chelsea cognescenti, Mr Portillo remains the favourite, with Mr Conway worth a bet.

Shortlist for the coveted Kensington seat

Michael Portillo

Favourite for the nomination that could lead to his return to the centre stage, which William Hague privately says he would welcome.

Hugo Swire

Eton and Sandhurst, son-in-law of former defence secretary Sir John Nott. A local resident, he is being touted by his supporters as someone without political baggage.

Warwick Lightfoot

Former adviser to Norman Lamont and a local councillor. He will be fighting for the "local man" mantle with Swire. Has a degree of support but may fall at the next hurdle.

Mark Francois

The Basildon man. Councillor from the Essex town and a surprise for the short list. Expected by many to make his exit after tomorrow's meeting.

Pamela Chesters

Conservative leader of Camden council and only woman on the shortlist. Conservative Central Office are impressed with her, but this will not necessarily cut much ice with the local party.

Derek Conway.

Former whip in Major's government is a good outside bet. Background is secondary modern. Hard-working and does not suffer fools gladly.

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