And then there were nobodies ...

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The Independent Online
"SCREAMING Lord Sutch may be dead but his memory lives on in the shape of William Hague's Conservative Party," Glenda Jackson said last night.

The former actress and would-be London mayor couldn't have put it better as the shambles at Conservative Central Office became an epic farce.

Steve Norris, who had been the bookies' favourite to win the Tory nomination, was unceremoniously dumped for past indiscretions he has always been open about.

His dismissal by a 25-strong panel of Tory worthies shocked colleagues and political rivals.

He was universally regarded as the only candidate on the Conservative slate with sufficient profile to give the Labour Party a run for its money in London. A man who at one time had five mistresses, he revelled in the nickname "sh***er Norris". It is understood a number of women in the party and right-wing Christian activists were determined to block him.

Sources present at yesterday's series of interviews said that all of Mr Norris' relationships were trawled over by the panel. Key members worked to convince colleagues to remove him from the list despite the fact that he was previously encouraged to stand against Lord Archer, who was forced to quit in disgrace.

The Tories confirmed Mr Norris had been removed from the race along with four other candidates. A statement said: "The executive decided to invite those it considered most suitable to appear before the electoral college on Monday."

Four candidates, Andrew Boff, Baroness Hanham, Mark Kotecha and Baroness Miller, remain in the race.

Mr Norris' rejection added to the sense of turmoil in the Conservative Party.

Labour's Frank Dobson said: "Those who chose Jeffrey Archer have decreed that Steve Norris isn't good enough for them. This shows yet again that William Hague has lost his credibility on London's future."

Susan Kramer, the Liberal Democrat candidate, said: "The shortlist means that the Tories have been incapable of finding either a political heavyweight or a professional with the right qualifications for mayor of London."

Ivan Massow, a fellow Conservative who withdrew from the contest to support Mr Norris, said: "This has really stunned me. I think it is absolutely terrible. He is the only candidate who could have given Labour a run for its money. They should have let the membership decide."

Westminster insiders believe that Mr Norris was blocked because of a "rising campaign" to keep him off the list - sharpened after he supported the sacked frontbencher Shaun Woodward's stand in favour of the abolition of "Section 28", the law banning the "promotion of homosexuality" by local councils. That is an issue on which the Tories immersed themselves in even greater confusion last week, when they announced that they would amend their policy along the lines Mr Woodward advocated.

William Hague's aides later made it clear that while Mr Woodward was bound to support the policy agreed by the Shadow Cabinet, a mayoral candidate would have more "latitude" in airing his or her views on the issue.

The Hague camp was, up until the last minute, talking up Mr Norris as a potential winner and a solid candidate.

The latest debacle at Central Office follows the short-lived candidacy of the maverick right-wing MP Teresa Gorman, whose views during the debate on the Maastricht Treaty caused her to lose the party whip.

The Conservatives' electoral college meets tomorrow to whittle down the candidates further before the final selection is put before a vote of the whole London party on Thursday.

But whatever happens, the party is now certain to be left with an anonymous candidate whose chances of seriously challenging Frank Dobson or Ken Livingstone are negligible.

The manner of Mr Norris' dismissal must raise the spectre of him standing as an independent. If Mr Livinstone were to do the same, both the most popular candidates would be independents.