Tory HQ downplays Wycombe selection row ‘interference’

By Alex Stevenson

Eric Pickles has played down allegations of ‘interference’ in Wycombe Conservative Association’s selection process after allegations of interference emerged.

One member of Wycombe’s executive council told Mr Pickles had been “disgracefully discourteous” and accused Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) of interference in the local association.

According to the source Tories in Wycombe were already unhappy about the need for 50 per cent of the final three candidates being women.

Further frustration was felt by the decision to impose a new selection procedure on the day Wycombe’s executive council appointed a selection committee to sift the 260 candidates down to just six.

Under the new procedure the vetting stage was replaced with a phase in which the selection committee meets with CCHQ to ‘discuss’ the sifting process. Hundreds of applications are sifted down to a final shortlist of three men and three women.

“Don’t get me wrong. I welcome help and guidance. I reject interference,” the source said.

“To the majority of members who were already suspicious of CCHQ’s intentions for Wycombe, which is a very safe seat, the compulsory CCHQ discussion was really highly suspicious and looked to most like an attempt at influencing the shortlist.”

Mr Pickles subsequently stepped in to suspend the selection process. A “drinks party” had been arranged in which the committee would meet their six proposed candidates. understands this “irregularity” was responsible for the suspension.

“The reason we intervened in Wycombe is we had a number of complaints from candidates they were being excluded from the process of selection,” Mr Pickles told this lunchtime.

“We have a duty to ensure fairness in the selection process, to make sure that all people. get a fair hearing. That was the only reason there was any interference. So the vetting thing the gentleman complained about hadn’t even occurred.”

Defending the changes to the selection process made in July, the Tory party chairman said they had been imposed to deal with an “enormous backlog” of seats.

“Immediately the general election starts we’ll go back to the old regime – it is just simply when you ask for new candidates and when not 400 apply but 4,000 apply you do have to ensure fairness,” Mr Pickles added.

“All that’s simply happened is we’ve truncated the system.”

The selection row was triggered after Paul Goodman announced he would stand down from parliament at the general election. Mr Goodman’s 2005 majority was 7,051.