Tory leader rocked by backlash over sacking

Tebbit issues warning to Howard. Expelled MP says: I won't go quietly. 'IoS' poll shows Labour surging ahead
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The Conservatives' election campaign was in meltdown yesterday after Michael Howard's deselection of a former deputy chairman of the party sparked a grass-roots revolt.

The Conservatives' election campaign was in meltdown yesterday after Michael Howard's deselection of a former deputy chairman of the party sparked a grass-roots revolt.

Lord Tebbit, writing in today's Independent on Sunday, warns the Tory leader he faces "endless arguments" over his "nuclear response" in stripping Howard Flight of his seat as well as his job.

And there is further bad news for Mr Howard in an exclusive poll showing his party has slipped 12 points behind Labour. Peter Hain, meanwhile, launches Labour's most savage attack yet in an interview with this newspaper.

The Tory high command's desperate attempt to close down the Howard Flight row failed yesterday as local party members broke cover to voice their fury at the sacking. The MP for Arundel and the South Downs was sacked from the Tory front bench on Thursday for suggesting the true scale of the party's proposed cuts to public spending was being hidden from voters.

But Mr Howard's decision to ban him from standing for re-election as a Tory MP now threatens to convulse the party just 10 days before the expected launch of the campaign.

Lord Tebbit warns the double sacking could simply "inflate a storm in a tea cup into a political gale". "Many Tories will question if Flight should be virtually expelled from Parliament," he writes today.

Mr Flight challenged the Tory leader's right to deselect him without consulting his local party. He is demanding an emergency meeting of his association. "If I am not allowed to do that, then all hell will break loose," he said, adding that he did not rule out a legal challenge.

Paul Dendle, executive council member for Arundel and South Downs Conservative Association, said: "I think that the process has been hasty and rushed and that Howard should be given the right to reply."

Len Warner, the association's former chairman, said the decision to deselect him, was a "disaster". "We think Michael Howard did overreact," he added. "To deselect him on my cards was not appropriate at all at this time." Oliver Letwin, the Shadow Chancellor, admitted it had been "embarrassing and difficult", but sought to present the sacking as proof of Mr Howard's leadership qualities.

"When we look back on this, people will say that's the moment when Michael Howard proved he was going to have the kind of government where you got what you were told you would get, not any other kind of government at all."

Mr Howard said that the decision to sack Mr Flight was "an unpleasant one". "I have a duty to do what I think is the right thing for the party and right for the country."

He tried to distract attention from the row announcing a new policy that he says would see 250,000 families receive up to £50 per week extra towards childcare costs. But there is further bad news for the Tory leader as an IoS poll today shows Labour widening its lead to 12 percentage points. The poll, taken before Mr Flight's comments were reported, found that 52 per cent agreed that "if the Conservatives were elected, I would ex-pect them to make substantial cuts in public services".

Peter Hain launches the party's most savage attack yet on the Tory leader, accusing him of deploying "ugly gutter politics" to appeal to voters' "basest instincts" in an interview with this newspaper.

He also rounded on Mr Howard's use of the abortion issue as "religious extremism". Mr Hain's comments were denounced by the head of the head of the Catholic church in England. A spokesman for Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor said: "It is not extremism for politicians to call for the abortion limit to be increased. That the issue should remain cross-party is no excuse for not raising it in an election."