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Tuesday, November 10, 1998 Published at 19:38 GMT

UK Politics

Welsh Tories choose ex-minister

The design for the new Welsh assembly

Former Conservative minister Rod Richards has won the contest to lead the Tories into next year's Welsh Assembly elections.

In a ballot of party members in Wales he beat Professor Nick Bourne, chief Welsh spokesman for the Tories since the general election, by 3,873 votes to 2,798 - a 49% turn-out.

Mr Richards said his new position was "a huge responsibility".

"I shall be taking that responsibility very seriously with a view to maximising the Conservatives' representation in the assembly."

[ image: Rod Richards: Will lead the Tory fight for the assembly]
Rod Richards: Will lead the Tory fight for the assembly
Asked if he was satisfied with the size of the turn-out, he said at least the Tories had held a one-member, one vote ballot, unlike Labour which he accused of threatening to rig its own Welsh leadership contest in favour of Welsh Secretary Alun Michael.

"It really is control freaks gone mad. The Labour Party in Wales is engaged in a civil war," said Mr Richards.

"This is going to continue and while at the moment our hope is to become the main opposition party in the assembly ... who knows? We might even become the majority."

Tory leader William Hague issued a statement congratulating Mr Richards on his victory. "There is much hard work to be done," he said.

"I am sure Rod will rise to that challenge and provide the kind of leadership necessary to rebuild the party's fortunes at a time of great change," he said.

The contest was not without rancour. The two contenders both campaigned for the post of first secretary candidate on a ticket of unifying the party in Wales.

But the Mr Bourne surprised the party on the eve of the vote when he announced that if he won, he would not choose Mr Richards as a deputy.

After his victory on Tuesday Mr Richards, asked if he would make Mr Bourne his deputy, gave a non-committal response: "Nick Bourne is a very talented and able person. There are many talented and able candidates.

"Over the next couple of weeks I will be looking at the resources available. His talents will be put to good use."

Labour reacted to Mr Richards' election by dismissing him as a right-wing "unpopular political bully".

Welsh Office minister Peter Hain, campaign coordinator for Labour in Wales, said: "Rod Richards is a hard-right extremist who was rejected by his own electorate."

"He is an unpopular political bully."

He predicted that the choice of Mr Richards "will ensure the Tories are walking into electoral oblivion".

Upsetting record

Mr Richards, 51, was forced to resign as a junior Welsh Office minister in 1996 after allegations of an extra-marital affair.

The right-winger first entered the Commons in 1992 as the MP for Clwyd North-West with a majority of 6,050 - the largest Tory margin in Wales. He lost the seat to Labour last year.

He has a record of upsetting certain sections of the Welsh population. In 1994 he infuriated Welsh Labour councillors by calling them "short, fat, slimy and fundamentally corrupt".

It led to some of them refusing to do business with him, and at one point it looked as though his ability to operate as a Welsh Office minister was being seriously undermined until the then-Welsh secretary, John Redwood, made him apologise.

There was another row when Mr Richards - branded "Redwood's Rottweiler" - said the people in the South Wales valleys had no expectations and no self-worth.

On another occasion he provoked Labour MPs to storm out of the Commons in protest when he accused Labour councils in Wales of "sleaze, corruption and gerrymandering".

Despite this controversial style, his knowledge of the Welsh language - he was one of only two Welsh speakers among Tory MPs for the area - made him a valuable commodity.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party is bracing itself for a bitter internal battle over its assembly leadership candidate after failing to persuade Cardiff MP Rhodri Morgan to stand aside in favour of new Welsh Secretary Alun Michael.

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