TV test for Tory hopefuls at Portillo seat

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Indy Politics

Tory contenders for the safe London seat of Kensington and Chelsea are to be interviewed by the broadcaster Andrew Neil in an attempt to weed out weak media performers.

A mock broadcast interview, with a television camera and 800-strong audience, will be used to decide who succeeds Michael Portillo as the Conservative candidate. The unusual step is to be employed this month by the association to choose a candidate from a shortlist of four hopefuls.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary, has emerged as joint-favourite to gain the sought-after seat, which has a rock-solid 8,000 Tory majority and one of the most well-healed and politically astute local parties in the country.

Sir Malcolm has been put on the "long list" of seven hopefuls who, with the other hot tip for the seat, Nick Hurd, son of Lord Hurd of Westwell, also a former foreign secretary, will this week be questioned by 100 Tory grandees.

The central London seat has attracted more than 200 applications, including from several former MPs.

But high-profile figures in Tory circles, including Catherine Meyer, wife of Sir Christopher Meyer, the chairman of the press complaints commission, Nikki Page, consort of John Redwood MP, and Philip Oppenheim, a former employment minister, have already been bumped off the list.

Tomorrow, seven candidates, who include three women, will be judged for their speaking skills, "integrity" and "ability to relate to people" in the first of two selection meetings

But utmost in the local party's mind is the ability of their candidate to perform on the national political stage and under the media spotlight.

The party is taking broadcasting ability so seriously it has taken the unusual step of asking Mr Neil, the former Sunday Times editor, now a broadcaster and political pundit, to conduct the interviews in front of 800 local Tories at the end of February.

But the association's chairman, Shireen Ritchie, whose stepson is Guy Ritchie, the film director and husband of Madonna, the pop star, will be the important figure to impress.

She said: "Today, all public figures need media skills, so this form of interview will give the membership an opportunity to see candidates performing under some pressure in a high-profile political situation.

"I believe this is the first time this kind of interview has been tried and I am sure it will help us in our efforts to select the very best candidate for Kensington and Chelsea."

The contenders

SIR MALCOLM RIFKIND

Urbane former foreign secretary who lost his Edinburgh seat in 1997 and tried to regain it. The lawyer attended party conferences after he lost his seat to chat to rank and file. Also served as defence secretary, transport secretary and secretary of state for Scotland.

DANNY FINKELSTEIN

William Hague's former head of research who works for The Times. The former policy guru was well liked at Central Office and known for witty speeches and one liners. He was disappointed not to gain the seat of Harrow West in 2001 which he lost by 6,156 votes. Good on TV and radio.

NICK HURD

The confident oldest son of former the Tory foreign secretary Douglas Hurd. The Old Etonian is chief of staff to Tim Yeo, shadow Health and Education Secretary. He was spotted at a Conservative ball networking and "oozing charm from every pore" in his attempt to win the seat.

PAM CHESTERS

Former leader of the Tory group on Camden Council. The businesswoman fought the Labour seat of Bristol West at the last election. Scottish. Formidable grassroots campaigner. Chairman of the Royal Free Hospital Trust. Former chief executive of Duckham Oils.

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