Mr Norris could be everyone's second choice

'Hague's decision to allow other candidates may not have been sensible, but it was understandable'
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ONE OF the greatest fallacies during the past farcical fortnight of jinxed and bungled mayor-making is that it has undermined the potential importance of the job. It has demonstrated the exact opposite. Almost nothing that has happened so far would have happened, if the job had not mattered very much.

Tony Blair would never have agonised about the Labour candidacy if he were not aware of the power that the mayor will exercise. It is unlikely that Jeffrey Archer's nemesis would have overtaken him at this moment if he were contesting some honorific office of no real significance. And it is inconceivable that William Hague would have reversed his original decision to call upon the runner-up Steven Norris on Sunday night, if he had not had a lively sense of the profound implications of the contest for both himself and London.

There are several reasons for thinking that Norris, of all the Tory candidates canvassed so far, would be the likeliest to win the contest next May. The mayoral election is being run under the supplementary vote system, in which electors are able to mark a second preference. Taking the general election and 1998 London borough elections, Labour has been polling at between 42 and 44 per cent in the capital, compared with about 33 to 34 per cent for the Tories. That means the Tories have virtually no chance of winning on first preferences. Indeed, to judge by the latest polls the gap would be even wider if Ken Livingstone were the Labour candidate.

But don't underestimate the efforts that will be put into ensuring that he isn't. First, it is already apparent that ministers are considering switching Railtrack's putative share of the Tube infrastructure to one of the other five consortia bidding for a share of the Tube private-public partnership. And, given that Livingstone has made the Underground the principal issue in contention, it would be surprising if there were not hints from the spin doctors at some point that if Frank Dobson - or just possibly Glenda Jackson - were to win, sudden sums of money might be found for the Tube. And suppose Dobson were to defeat Livingstone for the Labour candidacy, but some Livingstone supporters refused to vote for him in protest. Even then, the Tory candidate would still need a freak disaster in the Labour campaign - something that after the past fortnight or so can admittedly not be ruled out - not to be well behind Labour. But it is at that point that the second preferences become highly important.

And here Norris has at least one clear advantage over the other Tory candidates so far canvassed. As Tony Travers of the London School of Economics, the country's leading independent London-watcher, pointed out yesterday, Norris would have more chance of picking up second preferences from Labour and Liberal Democrat voters than Lord Archer, automatically associated with the Tory old guard - Thatcherite as well as Majorite.

Moreover, Norris would almost certainly be more likely to pick up second preferences than any of the so-far-canvassed candidates, precisely because of his famous semi-detachment. It was Norris, after all, who spoke those rather barbed words during the leadership contest in 1995 to the effect that Mr Major was the best Prime Minister we had got. Norris's appeal beyond core Tory loyalists, moreover, is likely to be enhanced by his distance (relative to Archie Norman) from the present Tory leadership - including his rather more open-minded attitude to Europe.

Norman may not be charismatic, but he has one primary qualification for the job: he has exceptional proven experience of running a large and difficult organisation successfully. He certainly cannot be ruled out. But the fact that he is a member of William Hague's closest inner circle could make him look at least as much the instrument of leadership control- freakery as Mr Dobson for Labour - only without the advantage that Tony Blair is a lot more popular among voters than Mr Hague.

Also, Mr Norman's unpopularity in sections of the parliamentary party attests to his lack of certain diplomatic and political skills. The disadvantages that Norris faces in a contest within the Tory party turn to advantages when it comes to the wider election. In Mr Norman's case it could be the other way around.

Indeed, it is possible to imagine Mr Norris, at once a political bruiser and a social liberal well liked by the London Establishment, doing what few other Tory candidates would dare to do, and promising much later in the campaign that he would make a Labour or a Liberal Democrat member of the new Greater London Assembly his deputy. This pluralism would horrify the Tory hierarchy, of course. But there would be precious little they could do about it - say, three weeks before polling day. And there would few surer ways of securing second preferences.

He has moreover a distinctive record in favour of Crossrail, already backed by Frank Dobson, and on which the Corporation of London will today announce detailed plans for a private-public partnership. He fought a long, pretty public and, unfortunately for most other putative Tory candidates, unsuccessful campaign for it as minister for London in the last government. Yes, he has a chequered past private life, to put it mildly. But in a contest where name recognition is important, it has at least made him famous. And increasingly electors are behaving as if they were no more influenced in their choice of politicians by their sex lives than they would be in choosing someone to sell them an insurance policy.

That doesn't mean that the currently rather angry Norris is by any means a certainty. Indeed if Hague wants to keep him in the race he will have to reassure him rather quickly that he is the preferred candidate. Virginia Bottomley was one name canvassed yesterday - though she starts with the unfair disadvantage of having quite defensibly closed Barts hospital in the teeth of a concerted Evening Standard campaign to keep it open.

Still bigger figures have been talked up. For John Major, the nostrils might just flare at such a challenge if Hague were prepared, as he would have to, to beg him to do it - except, it's said, that Mrs Major is, understandably, dead against the idea. And most intriguing all there is Kenneth Clarke, who would be given a heaven-sent platform by the campaign, and even more so by a victory, and will be more conscious than most that the mayoralty of Paris was Jacques Chirac's route to power. Some in Mr Clarke's circle would like him to run, but he hates local government and has privately derided the notion.

Perhaps Clarke or Major could yet be persuaded. Perhaps some ideal Tory dark horse will emerge with the combination of irresistible charisma, proven managerial expertise and lightly worn party affiliation that Tony Blair, deep down, must have hoped for on the Labour side. But it doesn't look much likelier to happen in the case of the Tories than it did with Labour.

Whether it was sensible or not, Hague's hesitation and subsequent decision to allow the possibility of other, perhaps more amenable, candidates was all too understandable. For the stakes are rather high. The Tory candidate could just win. And if he did, directly elected by five million voters, he would automatically become the most powerful Conservative in Britain.