Summit still out of reach for Tories

Tory leader David Cameron faces a "mountain" that will take years to climb to recover his party's fortunes in the region, party chiefs admitted yesterday.

David Cameron

Tory leader David Cameron faces a "mountain" that will take years to climb to recover his party's fortunes in the region, party chiefs admitted yesterday.

The dramatic admission came from local government spokesman Eric Pickles who yesterday appeared to signal the Conservatives have little chance of winning any seats in Newcastle and Gateshead in next month's council elections.

He refused to offer any predictions about the chances of success on either council - which the Tories have been absent from for years - and seemed to rule out making a "big push" in the local polls in the region.

Speaking during a press briefing on his party's local election campaign, Mr Pickles revealed the Tory strategy was now based on making "incremental" improvements to its electoral performance in the coming years.

His comments appear to be a tacit admission of the huge challenge facing the Tories to win over the North-East after suffering a spiral of decline in support at the polls for years.

The Conservatives also do not currently have any councillors in Derwentside, Durham, Easington, Wansbeck and Wear Valley - while Hexham MP Peter Atkinson is their only North-East representative in the Commons.

Speaking in London, Mr Pickles said: "You have to recognise, and I speak as someone who is from the North of England, that the mountain we have to climb in the North-East is a very steep one.

"One thing we have tried to bring to the modern Conservative party is a recognition that something like this is going to take more than one year, more than two years.

"It has got to be incremental and as part of our election strategy we are re-engaging with the North of England and the North-East to try and increase our numbers."

The Conservative Party had been "bedeviled" by always going for a big electoral push even though it would take years to establish an organisation and achieve the breakthrough, added Mr Pickles.

But he said it would not stop his party trying and insisted David Cameron was having a positive effect in the North, while there was the potential for Tories to do "reasonably well" in suburban areas.

But Mr Pickles would not offer any predictions for other areas - particularly in conurbations where his party has no representation at present.

He also insisted that securing more seats on Northern metropolitan councils was not a key test for Mr Cameron in the town hall elections, although increasing the Tories' total number of councillors in the North was.

Last night, Liberal Democrat Newcastle councillor Greg Stone said he saw no prospect of the Tories winning any council seats in the city. "It is now 15 years since the Conservatives won a seat in Newcastle and we don't see much effort from them this year," added Mr Stone.

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'Boiler' jibe councillor to quit

A long-serving Northumberland councillor who was suspended last year for making derogatory remarks about two female teachers has called a halt to his town hall career.

Former Blyth Valley mayor Derek Raffle is not standing for re-election as a borough councillor for the Cramlington Eastfield with East Hartford ward at next month's poll.

In October he was suspended from the council for two months and told to undergo retraining in equalities and the code of conduct following a disciplinary hearing into his conduct.

A formal complaint was lodged after he was said to have called the two teachers a `pair of old boilers' at a public function. The punishment was handed out by Blyth Valley Council's standards panel.

Last night Mr Raffle, who has been a Labour councillor in Blyth Valley for 30 years and was mayor in 1985-86, denied the disciplinary action had anything to do with his decision.

Mr Raffle, a diabetic who lives in Wrightson Street, East Hartford, said: "I am not very well at all and it is purely for health reasons and my weight problems that I have decided not to stand. It was not really a difficult decision to make because I am at the doctor's far too often these days."

The complaint made about his remarks last year was referred to the Standards Board for England, which referred it back to the council's own standards panel. He was found to have failed to treat others with respect and to have conducted himself in a way which could reasonably be regarded as bringing his office or authority into disrepute.

Meanwhile, a former Labour councillor who was suspended by the party after branding a woman a "gargoyle" will attempt to win back his seat on Gateshead Council.

Steve Ronchetti used the term on council notepaper to refer to a woman who sued him over a fall outside his pub in 2000. The case was later dismissed, and Mr Ronchetti was cleared of bringing his office into disrepute by the Standards Board for England.

However, he was forced to give up his Blaydon seat due to a party suspension during the case and could not stand in the 2004 election. He will be a Labour candidate for the seat next month.

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