Gardiner wins crucial vote

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Sir George Gardiner, the right-wing Conservative MP, last night won his fight to remain the MP for Reigate when he carried a vote of confidence by members of his Reigate constituency association. At a packed meeting at Reigate Grammar School Sir George, 61, won the ballot by 311-206 with one paper spoiled.

Sir George, who has represented Reigate since 1974, said he was "overwhelmed and overjoyed" by the size of his majority. He said the Conservative Association now had to put the past behind it and unite to fight the next General Election. Sir George added that he had always known it would be tight but was "relieved the party had showed true sense."

If he had lost last night's vote Sir George had promised to resign and force a by-election, wiping out the Government's majority. Labour and the Liberal Democrat candidates standing outside, before the vote was announced, both said they relished the challenge of destroying Sir George's 17,000 majority.

There was also the prospect, if he had lost, of Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party splitting the Tory vote by fielding a candidate.

But after a tense two-hour meeting Sir George won through. In his speech he said he had always "been an honest MP" and had not voted against John Major on a confidence resolution. Sir George, a strong Euro-sceptic, also said he had not voted against the Government since the Maastricht debate two years ago.

Asked in the meeting about the way he had polled senior Reigate Conservatives ahead of last year's leadership election and then appeared to ignore their view by supporting John Redwood, he said the Prime Minister had made it clear MPs were free to vote with their consciences.

Sir George was also forced to respond to criticism of his public support for Michael Portillo, the Defence Secretary, as future leader of the party. Members were also unimpressed by an article without a byline in the magazine of the Conservative Way Forward group, which he runs, criticising the Princess of Wales.

Sir George said "no personal insults" were thrown at him in the meeting. This was a reference to reports earlier this week that some members were preparing to vote against him on the basis of his looks.

Local Conservatives said they were surprised by the size of the turnout and thought it indicative of a well-organised campaign by Sir George and his supporters.

Even so, the size of the vote against him was seen by some members, as they came out of the meeting, as a sign of problems ahead. One woman who asked not to be named said the association was still divided over its MP. However, Nick Dawes, said he was impressed by Sir George's performance and thought he made "a very good speech".