The Tory war of the thistles

In Scotland, the Conservative Party faces not merely the voters, but also its own army of malcontents. Stephen Goodwin investigates the strange story of serial resignations

Scottish Tories are hoping that the selection of Paul Cullen, the seemingly upright Solicitor General for Scotland, to fill the sudden vacancy in Eastwood heralds an end to a nightmare of backstabbing and resignations.

They may be lucky. Michael Forsyth, Secretary of State for Scotland, was at least able to launch his kilted version of the Conservative manifesto yesterday without being pressed on the personal "indiscretions" of erstwhile colleagues or the grisly consequences. None the less, the party hierarchy and staff at the headquarters in Leith remain in a state of paranoia. A glance back over the past 10 days suggests that they may have good reason.

It would certainly be instructive for Mr Cullen, as a newcomer to party politics, to investigate how he came to be chosen to fight the Tories' safest seat in Scotland. Though an advocate of 15 years standing, he will seldom have delved into a grubbier business.

Eastwood became vacant on Monday, 24 March, when Allan Stewart, a colourful former Scottish Office minister, decided not to stand in the south Glasgow seat he had held since 1979. "Ill-health" was cited, but weekend papers had blazoned allegations of a relationship with a married woman he met at clinic for drinks problems.

The next day, Sir Michael Hirst, chairman of the Scottish Conservative Party, was heavily tipped as the front-runner. He had been an MP from 1983 to 1987, and seemed to fit the bill, because Ian Muir, the constituency chairman, wanted a "high-profile politician".

After expressing the usual sympathies for the departing Mr Stewart and his "terribly difficult decision", Sir Michael made plain his own willingness to stand. But the Eastwood executive decided to wait 24 hours until the deadline for applications before shortlisting Sir Michael. And in the interim the knives went into the 51-year-old party chairman.

Mr Cullen would need all his prosecutor's skills to extract a confession as to who actually dialled the tabloids to reheat a four-year old rumour of Sir Michael's gay liaisons. But the deed was certainly done, and presumably by one of those Tories described on Tuesday as "malcontents" by the new party chairman, Annabel Goldie.

The calls fell on fertile ground. The Sunday Mail and Daily Record were already working on the Hirst story, though neither had clinching photographic evidence. Believing that the story was about to break, the Record contacted Tory HQ and panic set in.

The only foe of Sir Michael actually to go public was the former MP Anna McCurley - like him a victim of the 1987 Tory wipe-out in Scotland. She said that she would rather see Donald Duck as the candidate in Eastwood than Sir Michael - a colourful outburst that damned her own slim chances into the bargain.

Their rivalry is longstanding and personal, though not ideological. Sir Michael is a middle-of-the-road pragmatist; McCurley almost a left- winger. In 1989, McCurley lost to Sir Michael in a bitter contest for the presidency of the Scottish Conservative Association, the voluntary arm of the party. Eight years later, she was not going to allow him to walk off with Eastwood.

Although it is not known who is responsible, the malcontents' sabotaging Micky's chances at Eastwood seems deliberate - but forcing his resignation as chairman does not. "The plot got out of hand," said one Tory insider. "It went horribly wrong, though I don't think you will find many of his enemies pining over his departure."

Sir Michael notified the Eastwood executive late last Thursday that he did not wish to pursue the vacancy, and next day invited three senior colleagues to his home near Glasgow to discuss his predicament. The three were Miss Goldie, then Sir Michael's deputy; Jackson Carlaw, who has now succeeded her; and Sir Adrian Shinwell, immediate past president of the voluntary wing.

Accounts of the meeting vary. The Sunday Mail painted a florid image of party chiefs working on a "shell-shocked" Sir Michael for hours to extract a resignation. The officers insist that the decision was Sir Michael's own, but they are silent about any advice he was offered.

Sir Michael's friends believe he fell on his sword out of a "boy-scoutish" sense of honour when more calculating politicians - aka Neil Hamilton - would have delayed to see if the newspapers had sufficient dirt to finish him. "Micky is a superb motivator for the party, but in some ways he is rather naive," said one.

The weekend drama also saw the summary departure from party headquarters "by mutual agreement" of the press officer George Birrell, a confidant of Sir Michael's who had argued fiercely for the chairman to hang on.

Leadership fears of further embarrassment were heightened on Monday with claims by the gay rights group Outrage of a gay network within the Scottish party. Peter Tatchell, the group's leader, said there was "considerable resentment" about the influence of the gay clique, and hinted at exposures. But Tatchell has made such threats before, to little effect; plainly the Scottish party has more to fear from its own malcontents than Outrage.

After getting through yesterday's manifesto launch without Sir Michael's name being mentioned - he was lying low in a holiday cottage in the Highlands - the leadership is hoping that the press has become bored with the affair. Though there does not seem to have been any direct ideological motive for the downfall of Sir Michael Hirst, Michael Forsyth and the Tory right in Scotland could emerge from the smoke and wreckage in a stronger position.

"Micky", in his distinctive tartan trews, was an engaging personality on the cheese-and-wine circuit, but no political soulmate of the right- wing Secretary of State. In Miss Goldie and Jackson Carlaw, Forsyth has natural allies at the head of the party machine. And in Paul Cullen, there is a right-inclined candidate fighting Eastwood, instead of a potential rival with skeletons in his cupboard.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Bradford City's reward for their memorable win over Chelsea is a trip to face either Sunderland or Fulham (Getty)
Lars Andersen took up archery in his mid thirties
Focus E15 Mothers led a protest to highlight the lack of affordable housing in London
voicesLondon’s housing crisis amounts to an abuse of human rights, says Grace Dent
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

£38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

£35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

£15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea