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Monday, 20 August, 2001, 11:01 GMT 12:01 UK
Fight for the faithful
Conservative members at the 1999 party conference
Activists not MPs now hold sway on the final winner
By BBC News Online's Ollie Stone-Lee

Choice has long been a Conservative watchword.

But it is only now, as ballot papers are sent out, that Tory grassroots members are being given the right to choose their own leader.

It is an historic moment, even if the choice on the ballot papers has been restricted to two - Ken Clarke and Iain Duncan Smith.


It will depend more on what members see on television and on their gut instincts

Jeremy Bradshaw
Tory activist
Conservative MPs only secured a vote in the leadership contest themselves in 1965 - before Edward Heath's election the leader simply "emerged" with help from a "magic circle" of Tory grandees.

Now those MPs, having whittled down the initial field of five, each carry just one vote out of 300,000.

Long-standing MP Sir Patrick Cormack recognised this contest would be very different.

"My vote is the same as my wife's in this election," he laughed.

Sir Patrick Cormack
Cormack: Contest is very different this time
Sir Patrick believes the system is right for the circumstances but it does mean he and his Commons colleagues effectively have to take a back seat in the coming weeks.

The Staffordshire South MP has already met members of his constituency association to explain why he is backing Ken Clarke and he has also written them all a letter setting out those views.

"Many members are extremely excited, I think some are absolutely delighted, some do not think they should have it," he told BBC News Online.

The leadership contenders tried to seduce MPs into joining their camps in the contest's early stages, now it is the turn of the members to be wooed in the frantic last three-and-a-half weeks of campaigning.

Heavy schedule

Both candidates have begun a heavy schedule of speeches and meetings which will take them before thousands of members - some party events are even said to be over-subscribed.

Some activists believe, however, much of these efforts will be wasted as members return their ballot papers long before the 11 September closing date.

As the drive for votes continues, Conservative Central Office is refusing to hand members' details to the candidates.

But Tory councillors have already received a letter from Mr Duncan Smith stressing the importance of local government.
Iain Duncan Smith
Duncan Smith is targeting members through webcasts

Manifestos for both men will also be sent out this week with the ballot papers but Jeremy Bradshaw, who stepped down as chairman of the Holborn and St Pancras constituency association, cast doubt on the effect of such efforts.

"I don't think many people are going to have their minds changed by what the campaigns send out now, it will depend more on what they see on television and on their gut instincts," said Mr Bradshaw, a former chairman of the influential Tory Bow Group.

Head-to-heads

As it stands, the only head-to-head debate between Mr Clarke and Mr Duncan Smith will come on BBC Two's Newsnight.

Behind closed doors, Tory members will be able to see, hear and question the two candidates separately at nine regional hustings.

Some Clarke supporters claim Mr Duncan Smith is "frit" of having more head-to-head debates - a claim strongly denied by allies of shadow defence secretary.

Ken Clarke
Clarke wants more head-to-head debates
And John Strafford, chairman of the Campaign for Conservative Democracy told BBC News Online both men should appear alongside each other for at least part of the session.

"The essence of democracy is debate and discussion and we want to see with hostile questions how the candidates will react," he said.

Activists and the rest

Martin Vickers, deputy chairman of the Great Grimsby Conservative Association in North East Lincolnshire, thinks the hustings may prove more important in how they are reported "back to base" by those who do attend.

Coun Vickers made the distinction between the party activists and that greater unknown - those members who have little to do with Tory events.

"It is impossible to say how these people, who we never really have any day-to-day contact with are going to go," he said.

He estimates 25-30% of members are not active in the party at all in many constituencies.

Jean Webber, a branch and divisional chairman of North West Hampshire constituency, also highlighted the distinction between different types of members.

Wider choice wanted

"I would think if you took a vote just of party activists then Iain Duncan Smith would win but I think left to the membership at large, who will probably say 'Iain who?', then probably Kenneth Clarke may win."

Mrs Webber, who has been convinced by Mr Duncan Smith's campaign, believes many members, particularly those who are not active in party events, are still undecided.

She said a lot of them would have found it more exciting if they had been allowed to choose from the full original field of five - it remains to be seen if that disappointment hits turnout.

It might now be a one-on-one battle but the leadership race threw up enough surprises when there were only 166 MPs voting, not 300,000 unknown members.

That uncertainty will both frustrate and offer hope to the two challengers as they step up their fight for the Conservative crown.


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15 Aug 01 | UK Politics
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