Tories retreat over London mayor plans

The Conservatives have extended the deadline for applications to be the party’s candidate for London mayor in a tacit admission that the submissions so far are not good enough.

Party chairman Francis Maude said the response to join an X-factor style contest to decide who represents the Tories in the 2008 mayoral elections had been “extremely encouraging”.

But following concerns by some “very serious potential candidates” about making the commitment so far in advance, he said they had decided to put today’s deadline back by several months.

“Given that the mayoral elections are still nearly two years away, we are therefore extending the deadline to give these and others the chance to come forward,” he said.

“We want as wide a range of people as possible to take part in this exciting and innovative process with a view to selecting a candidate next spring.”

His comments come after one of the most well-known potential candidates, Steven Norris, last night ruled himself out of the race.

The former minister has twice challenged Ken Livingstone for the job but confirmed he would not be trying a third time.

Nick Ferrari also announced yesterday that he had decided against putting his name forward, saying that holding the mayoral office would compromise his job as a DJ on LBC Radio.

Labour party chairwoman Hazel Blears said the news proved that “instead of finding the next big thing, the Conservatives have reverted to the same old thing”.

“The Conservatives have paraded the usual line-up of failed parliamentary candidates, old-fashioned Thatcherites and even a candidate who wants to abolish the mayor altogether,” she said.

“As a consequence of this latest Cameron failure the Tories have descended into farce by now deciding to move their own mayoral candidate deadline in an attempt to find someone people might recognise.”

Olympics chief Sebastian Coe and former Metropolitan police commissioner Lord Stevens had both refused requests to stand, leaving the director of a think tank, a London assembly member, a former TA major and two councillors as the only confirmed runners.

Nicholas Boles, the director of the Policy Exchange think tank and a close friend of Mr Cameron, was considered the frontrunner, but even he left open the possibility that he might pull out in September if he did not have enough support.

Speaking yesterday, Mr Ferrari condemned the Tories’ plans for choosing a mayoral candidate, which would have seen all Londoners voting by telephone or text later this year.

“The Conservative party has got this wrong. They have got a bunch of people who are not even names in their own households. They have botched it. They have gone 12 months too soon,” the DJ told the BBC yesterday.

And today Mr Maude appeared to acknowledge this criticism – although he insisted the idea of holding a primary, which Mr Cameron has said would “fire the public’s imagination, and get them talking and thinking about politics again”, was valid.

“We have received a number of excellent applications. This has been extremely encouraging. We have also received expressions of interest from a number of very serious potential candidates for whom the timescale we originally set is too restrictive,” he said.