Tory split as Howard ditches errant MP
MICHAEL Howard yesterday ended the political career of Howard Flight, his former deputy party chairman, in an unprecedented punishment for his suggesting the party has a hidden agenda of spending cuts.
In an exceptional and ruthless move, the Tory leader said that Mr Flight - who was sacked from his front-bench job on Thursday - should also give up his safe parliamentary seat.
The Labour Party jumped on Mr Flight’s comments yesterday, saying it had plunged the Conservative campaign into disarray and exposed Mr Howard’s secret plans to slash public services.
An incandescent Mr Howard sacked his deputy chairman on Thursday night. Yesterday, he went further, threatening to cause uproar in his party by forcing Mr Flight’s Arundel and South Downs constituency to replace him as candidate for the forthcoming general election.
Last night, Angela Litchfield, the constituency chairwoman, confirmed that they would be choosing a new candidate.
But Mr Flight - a former Tory front-bencher and one of the architects of the party’s James Review of public spending - made clear he would rock the boat, if forced to. Asked if he intended to stand at the election, he told BBC Radio 4: "I do, yes."
He said: "There’s a question of principle. The issue of candidates has to be done in a proper constitutional way. To do otherwise would expose Michael [Howard] to attack."
The outspoken former banker scored his election own goal at a meeting of the Conservative Way Forward group on Wednesday. He told his audience the review report had been "sieved" to make its contents politically acceptable and said the party could go even further than the 35 billion of planned savings on Labour’s projected spending once in power.
Despite Mr Flight’s bungle, many Tories were disturbed yesterday by the move to deprive him of his seat. Paul Dendle, a local Tory councillor and a senior figure in Mr Flight’s constituency association, accused Mr Howard of going "a step too far" by withdrawing the whip from him.
"I don’t think it was appropriate and it really comes down to an issue: it is the local association which decides the local candidate," he said.
Mr Flight had made "aspirational" remarks at a private meeting, he said. "If you can’t discuss policy in a closed meeting, where can you?"
Mr Dendle went on to describe Mr Flight as a popular MP and said he had a groundswell of support in the area.
Mr Howard, however, was unapologetic. In a blunt warning to other Tories who might be tempted to step out of line, he said the party would be "totally straight" with the electorate under his leadership.
"We will not say one thing in private and another thing in public. Everyone in my party has to sign up to that," Mr Howard said in statement filmed in his kitchen.
"If not, they’re out. Howard Flight will not be a Conservative candidate at the next election. There is only one spending plan, and that is the one we have published. And our plan is very clear and fully costed.
"We will be totally straight with the British people. We will do what we promise. If you really believe in honesty, you have to act on it. And that is what I have done today."
The Scotsman understands that Mr Flight was warned twice by Tory headquarters not to address the Conservative Way Forward group - and he is being sacked for gross misconduct, rather than what he said.
A source said: "We had seen a couple of examples of private conversations being taped. Howard was told he should consider this a public meeting, and specifically told to keep very close to the script."
Mr Flight’s defiance was seen as a sackable offence. In taking his decision, Mr Howard had in mind William Hague’s failure to deal with Oliver Letwin, the shadow chancellor, when he suggested 20 billion worth of cuts in the 2001 campaign.
But the decision to deprive Mr Flight of his seat is likely to trigger outrage among the many Tory MPs, some on the shadow cabinet, who privately share his views.
Last night, Mr Howard had started a huge operation to persuade his MPs that this did not signify that Mr Flight and those who agreed with him were guilty of some kind of "thought crime". A source said: "We’re working on this very quickly."
The storm was a setback after a YouGov poll yesterday showed the party on 34 per cent, just 1 per cent behind Labour.
Mr Howard suffered a further blow yesterday when the UK Independence Party announced that its chairman would stand against the Tory leader in his Folkestone and Hythe seat. Mr Howard’s majority there is a modest 5,907 and had been one of the vulnerable seats targeted by the Liberal Democrats.
Petrina Holdsworth, UKIP’s chairman, accused Mr Howard of contradictory views over his absolute commitment to European Union membership, while planning to withdraw from the Common Fisheries Policy.
PASSION FOR POLITICS, NOT THE PERKS
HOWARD Flight is the kind of unreconstructed City figure who dabbles in politics for the passion, not the perks.
An MP’s salary is a drop in his oceanic finances, which flow from some of his 11 directorships.
Regarded as a "hard worker" by his constituency chairman, the 56-year-old spends up to 100 hours at work a week, most of them as the MP for his picturesque Sussex constituency.
He also owns a flat in his constituency, another in London and a ski chalet in France.
Since his election to Parliament in 1997, Mr Flight has been a key architect of Tory economic plans and was instrumental in setting up the James review on Whitehall waste.
He was first lured into politics at university, where he became chairman of the Cambridge University Conservative Association in the 1960s.
Since then, he has been assistant to William Powell and John Maples, acted as Norman Tebbit’s personal adviser and is regarded as one of the most Eurosceptic Tories. He rose through the ranks to become shadow chief secretary to the Treasury by 2002.
A banker by profession, he has a thorough grasp of the financial world, which earned him his place in the Tories’ front-bench Treasury team.
Mr Flight, a graduate of Magdalene College, Cambridge (MA History and Economics), and the University of Michigan Business School (MBA), regularly contributes to political and economic publications.
His politics rest firmly on the economic right, and he is a leading advocate of cuts to the size of the state and the privatisation of parts of the social services.
Mr Flight lists his proudest achievement in Parliament as doing "all the Opposition donkey work for the Financial Services and Markets Bill" and establishing an independent complaints office.
Last year, Michael Howard appointed him to the newly created role of special envoy to the City of London to woo vital party donors.
With his penchant for pin-striped suits and his 40-cigarettes-a-day habit, he was popular with his local constituency association.
But the Conservative Party acted quickly to erase any signs of Mr Flight from their website - by last night his profile was deleted.
Mr Flight is married to Christina, and the couple have four children.
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