Labour has called on David Cameron to withdraw the Conservative whip from an MP who was filmed apparently admitting that he had encouraged a rival candidate in a crucial by-election.
Chris Heaton-Harris, who is managing the Conservative campaign for the Corby poll, was forced to apologise after a Greenpeace activist recorded him revealing that he suggested his friend James Delingpole should stand on an anti-wind farm ticket.
Labour’s vice-chair Michael Dugher said the Conservative leader’s failure to discipline the Daventry MP for a “serious betrayal of his party” stood in stark contrast to the decision to suspend the whip from Mid-Bedfordshire MP Nadine Dorries after she flew to Australia to appear in TV reality show I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here without seeking permission.
Tomorrow’s Corby by-election, triggered by the resignation of Tory MP Louise Mensch to spend more time with her children, will be a key test of public opinion, with Labour hopeful of snatching back the seat which it held until 2010.
Mr Delingpole, who writes for the Daily Telegraph on environmental issues, announced his intention to stand, but withdrew from the race two weeks ago the day after Conservative energy minister John Hayes controversially told the Daily Mail the development of onshore wind farms would be reined in.
Speaking to a Greenpeace activist posing as a wind power opponent last month, Mr Heaton-Harris said: “There’s a bit of strategy behind what’s going on.
“I’m running the Corby by-election for the Tories... And Delingpole, who is my constituent, and a very good friend... put his head above the parapet but won’t put his deposit down... It’s just part of the plan.”
During another slightly garbled exchange, Mr Heaton-Harris seems to confess that he put Mr Delingpole up to the stunt.
“Please don’t tell anybody ever,” he said.
“But he will not be putting his deposit down.
“He just did it because it’s a long campaign, it’s six weeks to cause some hassle and get, and get people talking,” he added.
In a statement last night, Mr Heaton-Harris said: “The quotes attributed to me range from factually correct statements to me bragging about things beyond my control, which has so often before been the failing of politicians.
“The implication that I choreographed any sort of ‘secret plan’ is simply not the case and I apologise if that is the impression given.
“It can hardly be said that my wanting to ‘put this on the agenda’ is new.
“I have spent years fighting on-shore wind, getting over 100 MPs to sign a letter to the Prime Minister, securing debates and raising questions in Parliament and touring the country speaking to anti-wind groups.
“It is a subject I am passionate about and will continue to work on until communities across my constituency, Northamptonshire and the country have the protection they deserve.”
Mr Dugher said: “Even the Tory campaign manager doesn’t think people should be supporting the Conservative candidate.
“If Chris Heaton-Harris doesn’t have faith in the Tory candidate and his party, the public shouldn’t.
“Last week the Tories withdrew the whip from Nadine Dorries for going on I’m A Celebrity.
“For a Tory MP to support a rival candidate in a by-election in order to try and change government policy is surely an even more serious betrayal of his party. David Cameron should show some leadership.”
Home Secretary Theresa May, campaigning in Corby, told BBC Radio 4’s World At One: “Chris has made clear - and I am saying today - that he has been guilty of some silly bragging. He’s been a good campaign manager. He’s been out campaigning hard, and will be campaigning hard today and tomorrow.”
Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes said: “Some Conservatives are clearly so hell-bent on disrupting the coalition’s green agenda that they’re prepared to stab their own candidates in the back to do it.
“The coalition’s position on wind farms and green energy will not change because the Liberal Democrats will not let it. We are committed to making this the greenest government ever.
“The Conservatives should be in no doubt: we will hold them to their promises on the environment.”
Meanwhile, Green Party leader Natalie Bennett said: “If Mr Heaton-Harris does not immediately resign, David Cameron should insist that he be expelled from the party.”
Ms Bennett said Mr Heaton-Harris’s admission that he encouraged a candidate to stand on an anti-wind farm ticket “does more than simply reinforce the fact that many Tories oppose this affordable, essential renewable energy source, despite support for it from voters.
“It shows parts of the Tory Party hold the democratic process, and their own party rules, in contempt.”