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Leading Article: The Conservatives have no alternative to Mr Norris

HERE WE go again. The return of Steve Norris to the cast of the long-running London mayoralty farce is welcome, and not just because the colourful former minister gives good copy. Mr Norris is by far the best qualified of his party's candidates and it was folly for the Conservatives' mayoral selection committee to disbar him from consideration by the wider membership. That they did so because of irregularities in his private life tells us a good deal about the state of mind of the modern Conservative Party and how out of touch with the electorate it has become.

The back-to-basics, traditional values wing of the Tory party seems to have lost sight of what this whole process is about. The voters of London are not going to be asked to marry Mr Norris; merely to consider taking him on as their mayor. And, whatever he was like as a husband or lover, he is a perfectly good candidate for the mayoralty. He has a grasp of transport policy, the biggest problem facing Londoners, as sound as any of the other names in the field; he has ministerial experience; and he would be a personable, even charming advocate for the city. The voters are much more likely to be concerned about these qualities and his policies on the future of the Tube and London's intractable social problems of crime and homelessness than they are about his all-too-well-chronicled amorous adventurings.

The electorate is becoming far more mature and tolerant about the private lives and sexuality of those in public life than many politicians - and especially those on the authoritarian wing of the Tory party - have given them credit for. The recent history of Michael Portillo demonstrates how much attitudes have changed over the last decade or so.

No doubt Mr Norris's private life and his liberal stand on Clause 28 offends the likes of Norman Tebbit, John Redwood and, not to be omitted, Tim Collins, the spin doctor of the back-to-basics campaign and the son of Diane Collins, an instigator of the plan to nobble Norris. But Mr Norris's liberal views are much closer to those of the average Londoner. He remains the Tories' best chance of winning the contest.

Mr Norris's position as the Conservative candidate is not yet secure, thanks to the party's absurdly convoluted selection procedure. He must face a hustings meeting and a ballot of the party's London membership. The Tories thus still have the chance to reject Mr Norris and turn a farce into a tragedy. But London and the Tory party deserves better. They must vote Norris.