TWO of the safest Tory seats in the country have launched searches for prospective MPs - amid speculation both could select female candidates.

Following the deselection of Thirsk and Malton MP Anne McIntosh, the only female Conservative MP in Yorkshire, earlier this year, David Cameron faced a barrage of criticism over the number of women representing the party at Westminster.

It is understood party chiefs have given Thirsk and Malton Conservative Association free rein to draw up a shortlist of prospective parliamentary candidates from about 90 applicants, and that the majority of the finalists are women.

The local party, which refuted allegations of sexism towards Miss McIntosh following a bitter feud, is determined to find a candidate who will reunite its members.

Ahead of the association announcing its prospective candidate later this month, neighbouring constituency group Richmond will advertise for candidates approved by the party to succeed William Hague in the safest Tory seat in the country.

Senior North Yorkshire county councillor Gareth Dadd said Mr Hague's decision to step down was "a very serious blow to the political representation that this part of North Yorkshire has had for the past 26 years".

Ron Kirk, deputy chairman of the Richmond Conservative Association, said he was certain some people would apply for both constituencies.

He said as Mr Hague had been attentive and energetic in his constituency while pursuing leading roles at Westminster, his successor faced a tough task.

He said: "How on earth do you fill those shoes?

"It would be nice if we did find a local candidate, but we will be looking for the best candidate.

"We will be looking for someone who has quite a broad background, despite it being a rural constituency there are quite significant industries within the area."

Chris Foote Wood, the Liberal Democrat prospective candidate for Richmond, said while he was disappointed not to be challenging Mr Hague, his chances of being elected had risen with the former Foreign Secretary's departure.

He said: "I suspect the Conservatives will send someone up from the South who is ambitious and that kind of candidate could cause a reaction."

Sources close to the Thirsk and Malton association said it had been delighted by the quality of the applicants and there was no danger of anybody pulling out of the race to challenge for the Richmond seat, which is regarded by some Tories as "a career-maker".

Previous incumbents of the seat have included former Home Secretary Sir Leon Brittan and Thomas Dugdale, who became the party's chairman.

Leading Conservatives were remaining tight-lipped about potential candidates to fill the void left by Mr Hague, but several tipped the Richmond Conservative Association chairman Wendy Morton, a parliamentary candidate in Tynemouth at the last General Election, to be among the leading contenders.

The daughter of a Wensleydale farmer, Mrs Morton's career has included working at the Foreign Office diplomatic service, the Whitehall finance department and running an electronics and manufacturing business in Leyburn with her husband.