At a closed meeting on Wednesday night, an attempt to remove Conservative and Council leader Cllr John Marsh by changing the party constitution was thrown into chaos when he forced fellow Tories to back him or sack him in a confidence vote.

The vote, which was expected to force Cllr Marsh out, went 14-11 in his favour and then he decided to reconfigure his cabinet by replacing David Clifford, whom he considered the prime conspirator, with Rosemary Possee.

However, although a victory, the result has left the leader with a significant rump of the party, nearly half, who did not support him.

There had been some disquiet about Cllr Marsh’s leadership, which came to a head at the first group meeting after the local elections.

Under a constitutional change, the Tories decided to elect their leader on an annual basis, rather than every four years, as had been the case.

Cllr Clifford remained tight-lipped over his sacking, but said: “It comes as a complete surprise, but I have really enjoyed serving the public as a member of the cabinet.

“I wish Rosemary Possee much success in her new assignment and I hope she gets as much pleasure serving in that office as I did.”

Trying not to rock the boat, Cllr Eddie Poole said: “I have every confidence in the leader and I am not going to say anything different.

“David Clifford will be a great leader one day, but my feeling is that he should have kept his powder dry.”

However, Cllr Poole noted that with former mayor Cllr Clifford now on the back benches at Rushmoor there are now no men on the cabinet below the age of 60 and he wondered how sustainable that was in the long run.

“I think it will come back to haunt us,” said Cllr Poole. “Because you just can’t keep talented people down.”

In a statement, Cllr Marsh said he was building on the achievements of the past, thanked Cllr Clifford for his hard work over the past two years and added that Cllr Possee was well-placed to succeed Cllr Clifford through her experience on the Rushmoor in Bloom Forum.

Speaking later to the Mail, Cllr Marsh said: “I wanted to have a change and it was a case of bringing in new faces which inevitably means someone has to go out.”

Challenged on Cllr Poole’s point about age, Cllr Marsh said he had not considered that point and denied there had even been a confidence motion, saying: “I asked them if they wanted me to continue as leader and they said yes.” But he did admit there had been a vote.

Cllr Clifford’s removal will come as a shock to both officers and councillors alike. His high-profile approach was known to be at variance with some members of his group, but in the past he has brushed aside such criticisms pointing to his successes, which included the construction of the Farn-borough skatepark, made possible by the successful bid from the lottery-backed Sport England for more than £91,000.

Many Conservative councillors are known to be deeply unhappy at Cllr Clifford’s sacking and some are now questioning the group’s future stability.

Cllr Marsh has asked his deputy, Cllr Peter Moyle, to take responsibility for a new portfolio which includes economic development and town centre regeneration and marketing.

The remaining four cabinet places remain unchanged, with Cllrs Roland Dibbs, David Welch, Nigel Baines and Alan Ferrier making up the executive.

Commenting on her promotion, Cllr Possee said: “I am delighted to be the first woman there. I think I can say that I will do my very best in carrying on with my work for leisure in the borough.”