SW Norfolk Tories defy David Cameron despite warning

The SW Norfolk Tories have been threatened with having a parliamentary candidate imposed on them if they deselect Elizabeth Truss and then carry on defying David Cameron.

The SW Norfolk Tories have been threatened with having a parliamentary candidate imposed on them if they deselect Elizabeth Truss and then carry on defying David Cameron.

But the warning seems to have stiffened the resolve of the rebels. And further protests against the process that led to Ms Truss's selection, and interference by the party's national leadership, were led yesterday by Sir Jeremy Bagge, a former high sheriff of Norfolk.

“I feel totally betrayed by Conservative Central Office,” he said. And he expressed outrage that the local association had been told that its candidate selection could be taken completely out of its hands if it throws out Ms Truss and then refuses to choose a candidate wanted by Mr Cameron.

“If they suspend the association, we can dissociate from the Conservative Party and choose an independent,” he said.

“We will not be dictated to.”

Sir Jeremy is a member of the association's executive, which was warned at a meeting on Tuesday that if Ms Truss were deselected, the local party would be made to choose from a shortlist of three candidates selected by Conservative HQ, and that it was probable all of them would be women.

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If they then refused to select one of these, a candidate would be forced on them, they were also told.

The warning came from Sir Graham Bright, who retired on Saturday as the chairman of the eastern region Conservatives. And his message was delivered to the executive after he had spoken to Mr Cameron earlier that day.

Despite Sir Graham's words, the executive voted by 19-14 to refer Ms Truss's candidature back to a special general meeting to be held on November 16. The executive meeting had been speedily convened after the association had been rocked by a media disclosure, only a few hours after choosing her, that Ms Truss had had an affair with the Conservative MP Mark Field.

The warning delivered by Sir Graham infuriated Sir Jeremy, who voted for Ms Truss at the selection meeting on October 24, but now feels “the kindest thing would be to allow her to move on” and seek selection in another seat.

Breckland councillor Robert Childerhouse has also spoken out against the Conservative national leadership's involvement in the candidate selection process.

“There is a lot of unhappiness. We feel like we're being dictated to because Mr Cameron wants her [Ms Truss] in his future government. It's not the fact that she's been naughty, but that she didn't declare something that could be embarrassing,” he said.

Mr Childerhouse added that many people wanted a local candidate “who can find his or her way around the constituency without a sat nav”, and that it would now be hard for him to “sell” Ms Truss to voters in his ward.

With anger in the ranks apparently still deepening, some members expressed concern yesterday that Ms Truss had been in the constituency in recent days meeting members of the association. “How will she know who the members are?” asked a local Tory officer. “If she is provided with a membership list, a criminal offence will be committed under data protection law.”

A spokesman for Mr Cameron refused yesterday to confirm or deny that he was contemplating taking the steps Sir Graham had warned of. “I cannot confirm that,” he said. “We continue to think that Elizabeth Truss is an excellent candidate and very much hope that the association will confirm the selection. We have not reached any further conclusions about any action that needs to be taken.”

Close advisers of Mr Cameron are becoming increasingly concerned that the tussle over Ms Truss could spiral out of control, and that the revolt in SW Norfolk could spread to other constituency associations which feel they are being bullied by the party's HQ and which strongly dislike the idea of having women-only shortlists imposed on them.

After being angered by being described as “Neanderthals”, the association rebels reacted much more positively yesterday to being dubbed “The Turnip Taliban”.

There was talk among them of printing T-shirts bearing that name. Their war cry, the EDP was told, is: “ET go home.”