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
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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.