ANN Winterton’s ill-judged attempt at rugby club humour was never going to please a party leader who has made determined strides to change the perception of the Conservatives as the "nasty party".
Not only had Iain Duncan Smith promised to be "intolerant of intolerance", he had made great play in last month’s local elections of his party’s multi-cultural credentials, launching the campaign in Bradford surrounded by members of the Muslim community.
In such circumstances, Mrs Winterton’s "joke" at the Congleton Rugby Club dinner on Friday night was hardly going to endear her to Conservative Central Office.
Bob Lewis, the chairman of Congleton RUFC, admitted there was surprise among the guests when she made the remarks with some diners taking up the matter with Mrs Winterton afterwards.
"The vast majority of people took it as a joke and no racialism at all, but obviously certain people did take it that way and were upset," he said.
Anan Islam, a member of the audience, whose local restaurant sponsors the club, said he was planning to withdraw his support following the MP’s comments.
"She is not an ordinary person, she is a public personality and she cannot make that kind of comment," he said.
Mr Islam said it was a "very bad time" to make those remarks given the British National Party’s council wins in nearby Burnley and Jean-Marie Le Pen’s progress in France.
Friends of Mrs Winterton, the wife of Tory MP Nicholas Winterton, who was not at the dinner, said her remarks should be seen in the context of a rugby club dinner.
Mrs Winterton, 61, issued a statement saying: "I unreservedly apologise if anyone was offended or took offence to what I said."
Initially, this was deemed sufficient by Tory Central Office with a spokesman saying: "She has apologised and that’s the end of it".
It was also suggested Mrs Winterton’s remarks fell into the same category as David Blunkett’s recent comments about asylum seekers "swamping" local schools. But after a succession of Tory and opposition politicians criticised the move, Mr Duncan Smith was forced to demand her resignation.
If the Conservative leader had not decided beforehand, the sacking became inevitable after Theresa May’s appearance on the BBC’s On the Record at midday yesterday. Ms May, the shadow transport secretary, looked clearly uncomfortable as she was asked five times by John Humphrys as to whether she endorsed Mrs Winterton staying in the shadow cabinet.
Moreover, she was asked how Mrs Winterton’s comments sat with Mr Duncan Smith’s ambition to have more candidates from ethnic minorities.
Unless he acted, the Tory leader was faced with the prospect of other shadow cabinet ministers receiving a similar grilling every time they were interviewed.
The row came a year after the then Tory MP, John Townend, made a speech attacking multi-racial policies. William Hague, the leader of the Conservatives at the time, was criticised by MPs and peers within his own party for waiting a week before taking action against Mr Townend. Mr Duncan Smith also came under criticism last summer when it emerged Edgar Griffin, the father of British National Party leader Nick Griffin, had worked for his leadership campaign.
Nor is it the first time a senior Conservative has fallen foul of a poorly-worded joke. Liam Fox, the shadow health secretary, was forced to apologise last year when it was revealed he had told guests at a Commons Christmas party: "What do you call three dogs and a blackbird? The Spice Girls".
While in Bristol, Tory councillor Richard Eddy was forced to resign as deputy leader after using a golliwog as an office mascot.
"It was one of the most stupid and moronic acts that a councillor could do," said Colin Bloom, chairman of Bristol West Conservatives.
Mrs Winterton has carved a reputation as a champion of traditional Tory values since she first entered parliament in 1983. Before joining the frontbench she campaigned vociferously against embryo research, Sunday trading, abortion and pornography.
Ironically, in 1995 she also called for the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) to be abolished on the grounds it was "hypocritical and divisive". In particular, she criticised the "blatant bias" in its recruitment, taking on six times more people from Afro-Caribbean ethnic groups than Asians.
She had previously also called for the Equal Opportunities Commission to be scrapped, calling it "divisive and anachronistic" because it employed 140 women and 30 men. Yesterday, the CRE described her remarks as "unfortunate" but had drawn short of calling for her resignation.
Speech that ended a career
THIS was Ann Winterton’s joke which led to her dismissal from the Conservative frontbench.
The former shadow agriculture minister told it to 160 guests at the Congleton Rugby Union club dinner in her Cheshire constituency on Friday night:
An Englishman, a Cuban, a Japanese man and a Pakistani were all on a train.
The Cuban threw a fine Havana cigar out the window. When he was asked why, he replied: "They are ten a penny in my country’."
The Japanese man threw an expensive Nikon camera out of the carriage, adding: "These are ten a penny in my country."
The Englishman then picked up the Pakistani and threw him out of the train window.
When the other travellers asked him to account for his actions, he said: "They are ten a penny in my country."