`Dracula' Sir George faces the final showdown

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The Independent Online
Hard on the heels of Sir Nicholas Scott's deselection as Tory MP for Kensington and Chelsea, another senior Conservative is fighting for his political future ahead of the general election.

Sir George Gardiner, the maverick right-wing MP for Reigate in Surrey, who defeated an attempt to unseat him last summer, will have his future discussed at a meeting of his constituency association's executive committee this week.

This time, according to senior Reigate Tories, his chances of remaining as the party's candidate in the election are slim.

The meeting on Thursday will decide whether to put his continuing selection to the vote of the full association. Last June, the leading Eurosceptic emerged victorious from a ballot of the full association by 311 votes to 206.

Such is the strength of feeling that has built up against him in the interim, though, that even his most loyal supporters acknowledge he is unlikely to repeat that triumph.

The cause of the damage is an article he wrote for the Express on Sunday before Christmas accusing John Major of "abject surrender" to Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke over the European single currency.

His refusal to toe the party line on the one hand, and his reassurance to local Tories that he would rally round the Prime Minister has aroused their anger. "His Christmas message to us was to back John Major, then he goes and writes in the Express on Sunday - he really should have known better," said a senior Reigate Tory.

Unlike last summer, when the general election was much further away, Sir George will be unable to play his trump card, that if deselected he would resign and force a by-election, something the party hierarchy was keen to avoid.

Now, with the election just around the corner, if he resigned it is unlikely there would be sufficient time for a by-election to be held. "It's another Nick Scott situation," said one of his supporters from last summer yesterday.

"If the association votes to oust him he will stay as our MP until the election but in the meantime we will choose a new candidate."

Also, last time, Sir George, 61, picked up sympathy votes after some of his opponents accused him of looking like "Dracula left out in the rain". The effect of the ensuing debate about his ugliness is thought to have turned votes in his favour.

But it is his consistent refusal to back the Prime Minister while encouraging his constituents to do so, that may finally seal the fate of Sir George, who has represented Reigate for 22 years.

With a majority of 17,664, the constituency in the heart of the affluent Surrey stockbroker belt is one of the safest Tory seats in the country. There would be no shortage of takers if it were to fall vacant.

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