BOURNEMOUTH’S beleaguered Tory council leader bowed to growing political pressure and resigned last night, leaving Cllr John Beesley in charge.

Cllr Stephen MacLoughlin stepped down at a meeting of the Conservative group at the town hall following a series of stories involving councillors under investigation.

Senior Tories both nationally and locally hope the move will end weeks of damaging speculation and begin to draw a line under what one insider called “a meltdown” in the Bournemouth party.

One said: “We desperately need to restore some public confidence. Goodness knows what people think of us.”

Cllr MacLoughlin said: “This is my decision and my decision alone. It’s in the best interests of the council but more importantly the town.

"There is clearly now a problem with public perception of the council and my stepping aside is the right thing to do.”

No successor was named but the Echo understands that veteran councillor Bob Chapman who was council leader from 1999-2003 will take over as group leader on a temporary basis.

Under the council's constitution, deputy leader Cllr John Beesley will be acting council leader until an election is held.

Cllr MacLoughlin is facing a public hearing in August over adult websites viewed on his council laptop, while Cllr Douglas Spencer is at the centre of a national party inquiry into unspecified allegations.

Last week Cllr Spencer was suspended from the Conservative Party and has now been replaced as chairman of Bournemouth West Conservative Association.

Another Conservative councillor, Richard Powell, was recently revealed by the Echo to have sent racist text messages – though he has been cleared of bringing the council into disrepute. He has been sent for equality and diversity training.

Meanwhile new acting leader, Cllr John Beesley, is also the subject of a standards board complaint made by an opposition councillor about his relationship with a planning consultant.

Cllr Beesley, who chairs the planning board, was returning home from holiday last night and unable to attend the meeting.

Cllr MacLoughlin told the Echo: “The recent stories regarding the conduct of Richard Powell and Douglas Spencer, which when added to the ongoing council process against John Beesley and myself, have had the effect of distracting public attention from the successful policies the Conservative administration is pursuing to improve Bournemouth and to protect the town from the worst of the recession.”

He added that “the cumulative impact has been damaging and I have decided it is in the interests of the town, the council and the Conservative party to resign as leader at this time so that the public can have confidence that the Conservatives in Bournemouth put the public interest first.

“My resignation is intended to limit the damage to our reputation and to allow that reputation to be repaired as we lead up to next May’s elections.”

The pressure has been building on the council leadership from local Tories and Conservative Campaign Headquarters in London.

Privately though some Tories are dismayed at the length of time it has taken to deal with the web porn complaint against Cllr MacLoughlin.

Others say there is nothing at all to substantiate any allegations against Cllr Beesley, who also holds the finance portfolio and has driven the council’s efficiency agenda.

Cllr MacLoughlin said he hoped to play a continuing role in Bournemouth’s future as a as a vibrant and successful resort.

See today's Echo for background and analysis