Civil war will break out unless local activists have the final say

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I was still a member of the Arundel Young Conservatives when I entered the Scunthorpe Conservative Club on 16 March 1976 (the day Harold Wilson resigned) for my interview to become the prospective parliamentary candidate. I was not on the party's official list. There was a frightful fracas when the Central Office boffin informed the meeting that I was not "official". Knarled local party members objected, however, to their freedom to choose me being circumscribed by outsiders. Consequently, I got more votes than anybody did else thanks to the natural desire of party members to be bloody-minded. When the locals asked whether, if elected, I would obey the party whip I promised only that I would make it a principle always to vote against the party at least once a year.

I was still a member of the Arundel Young Conservatives when I entered the Scunthorpe Conservative Club on 16 March 1976 (the day Harold Wilson resigned) for my interview to become the prospective parliamentary candidate. I was not on the party's official list. There was a frightful fracas when the Central Office boffin informed the meeting that I was not "official". Knarled local party members objected, however, to their freedom to choose me being circumscribed by outsiders. Consequently, I got more votes than anybody did else thanks to the natural desire of party members to be bloody-minded. When the locals asked whether, if elected, I would obey the party whip I promised only that I would make it a principle always to vote against the party at least once a year.

I had failed my Central Office interview a year earlier - when Edward Heath was leader - because I refused to accept the party's policy to control prices and incomes. But the seat was solidly Labour so Central Office decided to cave in - probably assuming I would never make it to Westminster. I can still remember the embarrassment of the Tory MP responsible for candidates when I walked into the Commons after winning the seat in 1979.

Any Tory MP who allows Michael Howard to get away with trying to suggest they are accountable to him and no one else is failing those who selected them and, more important, those who elected them. If Howard Flight is not allowed to put his future in the hands of those who, just five weeks ago readopted him as their candidate for Arundel and South Downs, there will be civil war not only in that association but throughout the rest of the constituency parties. Voluntary party activity will die unless they have ownership of their candidates.

This is now more than about some gaffe at a private meeting about future Tory spending policy. The outcome of this debacle threatens the very basis on which MPs are chosen locally and would alter their relationship with their constituents. In future, if an MP is expected to put his or her allegiance to a transitory party leader before their constituents then there is little point in electing MPs and no point in having local parties. Mr Howard is single-handedly destroying what is left of voluntary party activity if local party members cannot be sovereign in the choice of their nominee.

Mr Howard says it is all about "accountability" but frankly it smacks of Stalinism. He would do well to remember that, unless he becomes Prime Minister in five weeks' time, it is he who will be held accountable to Tory MPs for this mess. Meanwhile, Mr Flight should never forget that he still has it in his power, ultimately, to put himself on the ballot paper and account for his actions directly to all the voters. That was what I threatened when Margaret Thatcher's government tried to dump nuclear waste in my constituency. She soon backed off.

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