Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

Tories spoilt for choice in true blue seat

The Guardian - 2 January 2004

Applications flood in for Kensington and Chelsea after Michael Portillo quits politics

Christmas may be over, but for aspiring Tory MPs, the new year could bring the sweetest gift of all. On January 7, each of the 900-plus names on Conservative Central Office's candidates list will be sent an advertisement inviting them to apply for parliament's most well-heeled seat: the true blue Kensington and Chelsea (majority: 8,771).

Ever since November 7, when the former cabinet minister Michael Portillo announced his intention to stand down, admitting he had lost his appetite for the "cut and thrust of the chamber", CVs have been flooding into Tory headquarters.

The final selection meeting will take place on February 25. But the real process reached a peak during the round of Christmas parties, as would-be candidates pressed the flesh of those who could secure them a shoe-in to the Commons.

With the post not yet advertised, the constituency chairwoman, Shireen Ritchie, refuses to be drawn on likely applicants. But a hierarchy of probable contenders is in circulation.

Favourite is Nick Hurd, 41, son of the Tory former foreign secretary Douglas Hurd and Tim Yeo's recently-appointed chief of staff, who lives in the constituency and got to the last three for selection at Windsor. "He's definitely the front-runner. He's very popular and takes an active role in the constituency, which is important" says an association member. "But his age may count against him. They don't like them too young in K&C, and he's never fought a seat at an election." David Platt, 39, a Cambridge-educated barrister who also reached the last three for Henley (losing to Boris Johnson) and for Windsor, is also understood to be standing.

Peter Wilson, a venture capitalist who stood against Labour's Karen Buck in nearby Regent's Park and Kensington North at the last election, is also believed to be throwing his hat into the ring. He lives in the borough and reached the last six at Windsor

Phillip Oppenheim, 47, a former Conservative Treasury minister, is understood to be applying. But he is firmly anti-hunting - a fact which plays badly in a part of west London where Countryside Alliance stickers are plastered on Range Rovers. "He came unstuck at the last selection process [in 1999, when Mr Portillo was chosen] because of his views on hunting. It sunk him," says a member.

Michael Gove, the Times columnist, has been suggested by friends as a likely candidate - and would prove a certain celebrity cachet, shared by Mr Portillo and his predecessor, the self-confessed "philanderer, reprobate and adulterer" Alan Clark, whose death from a brain tumour led to the 1999 byelection. But Mr Gove is not on the official candidates list.

Ivan Massow, 36, former chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, caused speculation he might stand after being spotted lunching with Mr Portillo last month at The Ivy. But Mr Massow only recently rejoined the Conservative party, after defecting to Labour before the 2001 election, and such fickleness would not play well.

Charles Tannock, a London MEP representing the area, has strong local credentials, having cut his political teeth there as a councillor and vice chairman of the Young Conservatives. "I probably won't stand but I haven't ruled myself out," he said. He is taking soundings in a constituency where he is well-known and liked.

A question mark also hangs over Sir Malcolm Rifkind, 57, former foreign secretary, who recently pulled out of the selection procedure for the Tory stronghold of South Hertfordshire, despite getting to the last five. The gamble that he would secure K&C might have been a motive. Lady Meyer, wife of Sir Christopher Meyer, is also being spoken of as a contender, as is Margot James, a millionaire businesswoman living in the constituency, who recently admitted: "I don't actually think I will succeed in Kensington because I am an outsider - someone whose CV is not steeped in Westminster politics." Her relative lack of experience is likely to play against her. One candidate who will apply is Angie Bray, 50, former press secretary to Chris Patten, when he was Tory party chairman, and now the Tory Greater London Authority member for the area. She is party spokesman on the congestion charge, a fierce bone of contention in K&C. She has lived in the constituency most of her adult life, and in 1997 fought the Labour seat of East Ham.

As the association wades through the applications to choose its fourth MP in six years, one question may preoccupy it: whether to choose a high-profile, household name, or a candidate prepared to work for the constituency in return for a safe seat so close to Westminster.

As one member says: "I think they feel rather let down by the last two. Alan Clark didn't ever really do anything for the constituency once he got there, other than use it as a platform to promote himself, and the same goes for Michael Portillo. This time there's a feeling that rather than looking for a celebrity, they may be looking for a grafter."