NORTH Wiltshire MP James Gray says he knows nothing of a rift in the Tory party caused by his decision to oppose a merger of Wiltshire and Dorset fire services.

Last week, Mr Gray said he was unaware that his decision to voice protest at the merger had upset Wiltshire Conservative councillor Graham Payne who has resigned as chairman of the Combined Fire Authority of the Wiltshire and Swindon Fire and Rescue Service.

Sources close to Mr Payne, who has been a councillor for 38 years, said he was now considering resigning from the Conservative party. It is understood he has been approached by a number of different parties and could form a new allegiance or become an independent.

But Mr Gray said: “I don’t know Graham Payne from Santa Claus. I have never heard of the man. I have opposed this merger as I do not think it would be good for my constituents.

“I voiced fears about the merger of the ambulance service a few years ago and those worries have turned out to be correct. The response times for Wiltshire are now worse than they used to be and I fear this will happen to the fire service as well if there was to be a merger.”

Wiltshire Council leader Jane Scott also denied that senior Tories in North Wiltshire had colluded to oppose the merger which has been championed as the best way to save money by Mr Payne.

She said: “I am not necessarily against the merger. But I think we need to have more information before we make this decision. It is ridiculous to suggest this is some sort of North Wiltshire cabal that is just people being mischievious.

“If Graham is thinking about resigning from the Conservative party that is news to me.

“If he was to go it would be a shame. He has been a councillor for a long time but he has been an independent before in the past.”

But both Mr Payne and Mrs Scott agree it should be up to householders in Wiltshire to decide if the merger goes ahead.

Mr Payne said: “The people of Wiltshire only really care about how quickly firefighters get to a call; they do not mind what county is on the badge or on the side of the fire engine.

“I feel very strongly about this issue and I decided not to stand for re-election as I did not feel I had the support of the board.”

Consultation was due to have started on June 12 but has now been delayed and will now start on July 21 and run until October 20.

The issue will also be debated at Wiltshire Council’s full council meeting on Thursday.

Independent councilor Jeff Osborn said: “Those who oppose the merger do not have a real alternative. Sharing back office staff will never save enough revenue.

“If they do proceed down such a route they will then have to close local fire stations and seriously cut manning levels and safety cover. “This will expose local communities to greater risk.”