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Row over Tory candidate rumbles on

PUBLISHED: 08:36 12 November 2009 | UPDATED: 15:35 03 July 2010

The threat of deselection to Tory candidate Elizabeth Truss in South-West Norfolk, and of a big rebuff to David Cameron, has been revived.

Amid signs of a backlash after the U-turn performed by local Conservative chairman David Hills, Sir Jeremy Bagge, the former high sheriff of Norfolk, is to propose that Ms Truss be dropped at a showdown meeting of members on Monday.

The threat of deselection to Tory candidate Elizabeth Truss in South-West Norfolk, and of a big rebuff to David Cameron, has been revived.

Amid signs of a backlash after the U-turn performed by local Conservative chairman David Hills, Sir Jeremy Bagge, the former high sheriff of Norfolk, is to propose that Ms Truss be dropped at a showdown meeting of members on Monday.

The importance to Mr Cameron of the outcome of the meeting was underlined when Sir Jeremy revealed that he had a telephone conversation with him in which the Tory leader spelt out why he and his lieutenants were fighting hard to save Ms Truss.

“He said that if we really stirred things up in SW Norfolk, it could have a ripple effect across the country,” said Sir Jeremy.

Mr Cameron is acutely aware that several other Tory associations are deeply unhappy about candidate selection rules that seem to favour his “A-list” candidates, and that they are keeping a very close eye on the battle in SW Norfolk. He also knows that disputes could escalate in the new year when he will impose “by-election rules” for the selection of candidates that will involve the imposition of women-only shortlists in some seats that the Tories are expected to win in the general election.

Rebellion is already spreading from SW Norfolk into Suffolk. Some Tories in the constituency of Central Suffolk and North Ipswich are livid after being presented with a candidate shortlist of six people that doesn't include anyone from the county. There are accusations there that Mr Cameron is trying to ease one of his favourites into the “safe” seat (where retiring MP Sir Michael Lord had a majority of almost 8,000 in the last general election).

An East Anglian Tory MP said last night that he felt it was “too close to call” in SW Norfolk, and that “this could go either way”.

Undaunted by his discussion with Mr Cameron - which took place on the initiative of the Conservative leader - Sir Jeremy said: “I am sure Ms Truss is a very able woman. But at the Monday meeting I shall be moving, on a point of principle, that we do not endorse her. I do not know how much support I will get, because people can be weak in this sort of situation. But I am not standing for it.”

Sir Jeremy - 7th baronet, friend of the Royal Family and owner of the 1,200-acre Stradsett Estate, near Downham Market - said that he regretted that local Tory association chairman David Hills had been “cornered” into calling for support for Ms Truss this week after making it clear to members of the executive at an earlier stage of the political drama that he felt let down by her and wanted her deselected. His earlier statements - following revelations about her affair with a Tory MP - were sent by email from a cruise ship off Hong Kong.

Sir Jeremy's end of the conversation with Mr Cameron took place, bizarrely, from a vandalised public telephone box in Stradsett village after his mobile phone had broken. It was on the evening of November 5, and they spoke against a background of firework noises that could not compete with the potentially explosive subject of their discussion. By the time it had finished, Sir Jeremy had put £8 in the box.

Mr Cameron sought to speak to him after Sir Jeremy had publicly stated that “I feel totally betrayed by Conservative Central Office” and that “the kindest thing would be to allow her [Ms Truss] to move on”.

In a further indication of how much is at stake for Mr Cameron in SW Norfolk, it is understood that he was overheard “almost screaming” in a telephone conversation with Baroness Shephard. She has welcomed Mr Hills' statement of backing for Ms Truss.

A leading figure in the “Turnip Taliban” opposition to Ms Truss said yesterday that its resistance was holding up despite Mr Hills' U-turn. “The people I am talking to are still holding solid,” he said.

Mr Hills has failed to respond to a request to elaborate on his official statement of support for Ms Truss and to explain his volte-face.

Ms Truss's future will be determined by a secret ballot after she has spoken at Monday's meeting. Just under 100 people attended her original selection meeting on October 24.

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