Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

Race begins to find a successor to Portillo

Financial Times - 8 January 2004

One of the safest Conservative seats in the country was put into play yesterday after the party invited applications to succeed Michael Portillo as MP for Kensington and Chelsea.

Several hundred applications are expected for the job being vacated by the former defence secretary at the next election.Conservative Central Office invited those on its official list of approvedcandidates to put themselves forward for the seat, once held by Alan Clark, the diarist and former minister.

His death from a brain tumour triggered a by-election in 1999, won by Mr Portillo. At the 2001 election, Mr Portillo had a majority of 8,771. The estimated 3,000 members of the Kensington and Chelsea Conservative Association are due to choose their candidate on February 25. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary, is being tipped as a contender. Nick Hurd, the son of Lord Hurd, Sir Malcolm's immediate predecessor as foreign secretary, is another favourite.

One candidate reflected that in Mr Portillo and Mr Clark, the constituency went for "stardust". It has often picked idiosyncratic characters, choosing the colourful Mr Clark when it was forced to deselect Sir Nicholas Scott in 1996 after he was found face down in the gutter at a party conference. Mr Clark was seen as a risky choice because of revelations that he had seduced a judge's wife and her two daughters. The mother had described the former defence minister as "a depraved animal".

Mr Portillo, who shocked some Conservatives with his admission of homosexual experiences, was hardly a conventional choice. K & C, as the seat is known in Tory circles, may decide to go for a more low-profile name as an antidote to its recent alumni. Senior Conservatives believe Mr Portillo's decision in November to quit politics after only four years as the MP for Kensington and Chelsea exasperated the constituency. Another candidate said: "Obviously Malcolm Rifkind has huge appeal if they want to select somebody who has been a big gun. But they have done it twice now and I am not sure they feel they have been particularly well served by them."

In an attempt to prove that it has listened to the Conservative leadership's pleas to select a greater diversity of candidates, K&C -traditionally seen as an old-fashioned constituency - may select a woman. Angie Bray, a Conservative member of the London assembly, who was press secretary to former Conservative party chairman Chris Patten, has said she would be joining the race. She believes the association has "changed" and is ready to opt for a woman.

Another high-profile candidate would be Lady Meyer, wife of Sir Christopher Meyer, the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission who was formerly Britain's ambassador to Washington. She said she would be applying for the seat, subject to her inclusion on the party's official candidates' list. "The Conservative party needs more women. I think we need to be more representative: 51 per cent of voters are women," she said, and added that the Tories "need to be a little bit more modern . . . and show that we are young . . . not old-fashioned".

Other people tipped to run for the job include the Tory MEP Charles Tannock, and Phillip Oppenheim, a former Treasury minister who owns a Cuban restaurant in London. Mr Oppenheim's anti-hunting views are likely to alienate party members. CVs sent in over the next two weeks will be pored over by constituency officials at the beginning of February.

The constituency chairman Shireen Ritchie, stepmother of Guy Ritchie, the film director, was last night being guarded over the qualities that the candidates needed. "We look forward to receiving a number of applications from very competent people," she said.