Neil Hamilton, the disgraced former Conservative MP, could be on the verge of a parliamentary comeback at the age of 65 - for Ukip.
The Independent has learnt that the Thatcherite former minister, who lost his Tatton seat after allegations that he took “cash for questions”, has been shortlisted for one of Ukip’s best prospects at next May’s general election. He will go up against four other candidates in South Basildon and East Thurrock on Wednesday night.
Some local Ukip activists are furious, claiming that Mr Hamilton is being “parachuted” into the Essex seat by the party’s London headquarters. It ditched its original candidate, Kerry Smith, in October amid rumours that the plum constituency was being lined up for a “big fish”.
Critics of Mr Hamilton inside Ukip are worried that a figure associated with the sleaze allegations of the 1990s could become one of the party’s most prominent faces. They believe claim he is being rewarded for his work as the party’s deputy chairman after failing to win the nomination in Boston and Skegness, and making Ukip’s list for the European elections in May.
“It’s not a great idea,” said one Ukip activist said. “South Essex is a crucial area for us. This could damage our prospects in some other target seats. Local party members are very unhappy about what the London HQ is doing.”
In 1997, Mr Hamilton lost his once-safe Tatton seat to Martin Bell, the former BBC war correspondent, who stood as an independent on an anti-sleaze platform. Three years earlier, he had resigned as a minister after allegations that he received cash in brown envelopes for asking Commons questions while a backbencher for Mohamed Al-Fayed, the owner of Harrods. Although he denied the claims, a parliamentary inquiry found that he took cash for questions.
In an unrelated matter, Ukip has announced that that it has suspended Roger Bird, its general secretary, while it investigates allegations of impropriety over candidate selection. It is understood that he was accused of helping a former girlfriend, although she was not selected for a Commons seat.
A Ukip spokesman declined to discuss the claims, but insisted that they did not relate to a recent row which reportedly saw more than a dozen Ukip activists quit the party over leader Nigel Farage's top-down handling of the candidate selection process.
Ukip said in a statement: "Shortly after a claim came to light about the conduct of Mr Bird with regard to candidate selection, the Ukip took action swiftly and decisively, including steps involving external human resources consultants, as well as following due process and the party's constitution to the letter. The party has acted swiftly and decisively and will not tolerate impropriety of any kind amongst its staff."
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