Elizabeth Truss wins crucial selection battle
Chris Fisher, political editorThe SW Norfolk Tories put their trust in Elizabeth Truss again last night reselecting their highly controversial candidate by a large margin after a 90-minute meeting in Swaffham.Chris Fisher, political editor
The SW Norfolk Tories put their trust in Elizabeth Truss again last night reselecting their highly controversial candidate by a large margin after a 90-minute meeting in Swaffham.
The news was quickly transmitted to a highly pleased David Cameron, whose authority would have been badly dented if the vote had gone the other way.
About 170 people attended the meeting - close to 70 more than the turn-out for the original selection meeting just over three weeks ago.
A motion for Ms Truss's deselection was rejected by 132 votes to 37.
A key factor in her survival was an admission that the Tory leader's strategists and fixers had made errors in making local Conservatives feel that they don't have much of a say in candidate selection - and the sending of a clear signal that lessons will be learned from the SW Norfolk debacle.
The chairman of the meeting, Tory frontbencher Lord Taylor of Holbeach, began proceedings by reading a letter from John Maples, Tory deputy chairman with responsibility for candidate selection, acknowledging that mistakes had been made. This was apparently part of a game plan to lower the temperature in the room and to save Ms Truss by shifting blame from her to higher reaches of the party machine for the storm that followed her selection.
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The move was made not only to stop her being deselected. It was launched in the knowledge that conflict between constituency parties and the party's HQ is liable to escalate in the new year when Mr Cameron starts to apply 'by-election' rules that will involve the imposition of all-women shortlists.
After the meeting Ms Truss walked about 500 yards from the Assembly Rooms to the Conservative offices without answering any of many questions put to her by a pack of journalists.
But in comments to the EDP, she later said that she was 'delighted with a very positive result'. She would now move permanently to Norfolk, she added, and would focus on the constituency and the main local issues - including the A11, schools and farming - and on the election campaign ahead.
She said she now felt she had the full endorsement of the local Conservative association.
One of her leading opponents, Sir Jeremy Bagge, was unrepentant. 'All I am saying is that, as the schoolmaster once said to the parent: 'We have both failed, but at least I tried'', he declared. He then added that 'Central Office has deceived and betrayed us'.
Both Baroness Shephard, the former MP for the constituency, and the current MP for the seat, Christopher Fraser, spoke in favour of Ms Truss, in what was described after the meeting - by one of Ms Truss's supporters - as 'a well-choreographed' set of manoeuvres. Lady Shephard's 'passionate' endorsement was said to have swung many votes, but did not favourably impress everyone.
In an indication of continuing happiness, one of Ms Truss's opponents emphasised: 'It was a complete stitch-up. They wheeled out some 'big guns' who couldn't speak highly enough of her.'
The meeting was a climax to a furore that began only a few hours after the constituency Tory association selected Ms Truss on October 24 - in ignorance that she had had an affair with Conservative MP Mark Field. Many members felt used and betrayed when news of the affair broke the next day in the media.
Ms Truss has been based in the constituency for a couple of weeks, and in that time has been busy talking to association members and winning them over, the EDP was told, and had managed to create 'a settled view' before the meeting that she should be reselected.
Her opponents were adamant before the meeting, however, that their side was holding firm, and both camps were 'bussing' in extra people for the showdown vote.
Ms Truss addressed the meeting after a motion for her deselection had been moved by James Bagge, the brother of Sir Jeremy. Mr Bagge is understood to have himself sought to become the candidate for the seat after Mr Fraser announced that he was standing down.
Edwina Bagge, niece of Sir Jeremy, was tweeting on the internet yesterday that he had 'the highest respect for women and Liz Truss', and that 'he just wants the best MP for the local area and Liz is not'.
Mr Cameron had told Sir Jeremy that the deselection of Ms Truss would cause 'a ripple effect across the country'. And with candidate rows having already broken out in the seat of Central Suffolk and Ipswich North and some other constituencies, he decided that a conciliatory move had to be made to kill the rebellion.
The first signal of what it would consist of came in an article by Tim Montgomerie, the editor of the ConservativeHome website - and a staunch supporter of Ms Truss. He warned that 'SW Norfolk won't be the last of its kind if HQ carries on interfering.
'Blaming sexism and some unforgiving moralism' for the row in Norfolk 'will not do', he continued. 'Many Tory members don't like adultery and no civilized society should. But the saga is more complex than grassroots traditionalism.
'The right to select the local parliamentary candidate is one of the last rights available to a Tory member. Associations have been bullied in countless ways by a party headquarters eager to hit artificial targets for the proportion of female candidates.'