Amazed Lamont wins seat at last

The Ex-Chancellor's Tale: Harrogate welcomes former Cabinet minister back into the fold
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Chief Political Correspondent

The former Chancellor Norman Lamont was celebrating last night after being adopted as the Tory candidate for Harrogate and Knaresborough, ending a humiliating search for a seat to fight the next election.

Mr Lamont, 53, whose name was linked with 10 other constituencies, overcame local Tory criticism that he had been "disloyal" to the Prime Minister to defeat two rivals on the short list, David Ruffley, 33, special advisor to the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, and Ian Liddell-Grainger, a businessman.

"I didn't expect to win tonight - I am absolutely delighted, I am over the moon and quite astonished,'' he said after being declared the winner. He gave a clear pledge of loyalty to the Government, which helped him win last night. Appealing for unity, he said: "I wish to see the Conservative Party win the next election. The time for argument within the Conservative Party is long over."

Tory association members said after the result that they had picked him because he gave the most impressive performance and was the best candidate to beat the Liberal Democrats. "He admitted that one particular thing [his vote against the Government last year] was a mistake. He said he regretted it," said one member.

Mr Lamont said he would live in or close to the constituency and he defended past disloyalty - on which he was closely questioned - on the grounds of principle in opposing moves towards European Federalism. The Tories of Harrogate, a Victorian spa town renowned for its gentility, plumped for a high-profile candidate to see off a rising challenge by the Liberal Democrats. The vacancy was caused by the decision of the low-profile Robert Banks, the MP for 21 years, to stand down.

Local Tories denied pressure from Central Office but party leaders breathed a sigh of relief at his selection. They were worried that a bitter Mr Lamont could do more damage in the run-up to the election than if he had to remain loyal to fight for his own seat.

The former Chancellor emphasised his local connections with the region - his mother lives in Weatherby and he was married locally. But he found it difficult to overcome his image as a party-loving Southerner with a series of mishaps since being sacked by John Major, including not paying his credit card bills on time and having to remove a sex therapist who was renting his London home.

For Mr Major, it may come as a mixed blessing. Mr Lamont, his campaign manager for the leadership, was bitter about his sacking after refusing to resign over Black Wednesday, when speculators forced sterling out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.

In his resignation speech, Mr Lamont plunged a knife into Mr Major by describing him as being "in office but not in power". His biggest offence to Mr Major was being the sole Tory to vote against the Government on a crucial vote on Europe last year.

Mr Lamont underlined his Euro-scepticism after the ERM debacle by revealing that he had been singing in the bath. As a loose cannon on the back benches, he could have proved a dangerous foe for Mr Major in the run-up to the general election as the Prime Minister attempts to patch up a compromise over Europe to provide a show of unity.

But Mr Lamont may be hard pressed to hold on to Harrogate, in spite of its reputation as Conservative, old and affluent. The Tory majority of 12,589 has been reduced by boundary changes which put 12,600 votes into the neighbouring Vale of York seat with which Mr Lamont was also linked. The former Chancellor's seat of Kingston-upon-Thames was abolished in boundary changes.

His biggest blow came when he was defeated for Surbiton by the former Sports Minister, Dick Tracey. Had he not secured the Harrogate seat, his hopes of gaining a seat would have been slim. But it avoided him the further embarrassment of the crowded "chicken run" of Tory MPs and ministers seeking safer seats.