Great Divide in stockbroker belt

Tory rift: A constituency split over the reselection of a maverick MP lays bare the battle for the party's soul; A stranger could not discern any difference. They look the same, they talk the same, send their children to private schools and live in houses complete with croquet lawn and tennis court, whichever side they fall. But it is all there. Grander,independently-minded more right-wing Euro- sceptics are outside the M25. Left-wing, Major loyalists within.
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The Independent Online
A tip for any would-be resident of the Reigate area in Surrey: live south of the M25. Anything north of the motorway which divides this well-heeled constituency in two, is definitely out. There is a better sort of person south of the soon-to-be eight-lane monstrosity, in places like Merstham and the genteel villages around Reigate proper. The sort of person who will, next Friday evening, cast their vote for Sir George Gardiner, the local maverick Conservative MP.

The audience of party activists which assembles in the hall of Reigate Grammar School (co-ed, independent, naturally) to decide Sir George's future will split firmly in two. There will be those from south of the motorway and those from the north, from the commuter-land of Walton, Tadworth, Chipstead and Banstead.

Support for Sir George tends to split along similar lines. His friends and allies tend to live at on the smarter side, beyond the M25; his opponents hail from the pushier, less leafy, a bit nearer horrible London, side.

Not that a stranger could discern any difference. Whichever side they fall, they all look the same, talk the same, send their chidren to private schools and live in similarly gracious, well-appointed houses, with croquet lawns and tennis courts. But the divide is there, all right: grander, independently-minded, more right-wing, Euro-sceptics outside the M25; left-wing, Major loyalists within it.

"The Reigate branch is for George, and Merstham is 100 per cent loyal," said Daniel Kee, Merstham resident, vice-president of the constituency association, and a Gardiner man. "But there is talk that Walton, Tadworth, Chipstead, Banstead and north of the M25 are not his supporters," acknowledged Major-General Michael Steele, association chairman.

In truth, Mr Gardiner's membership is split down the middle with the result too close to call, and the major-general conveys deep dismay at the threat of Sir George to resign and force a by-election if the vote goes against him. "That would be the last thing we would want in the association, the party, or, you could argue, the country."

That is not to say, though, that Sir George should think his threat is enough to carry the day. Quite the reverse. For a start, says Major-General Steele, starkly, it is inconceivable that the Tories would lose a by-election, and then the association would come together in true blue fashion, M25 or not. Yet if anyone causes a by-election and the Government to lose its majority of just one, it will be Sir George. The man himself is unbowed. He maintains that talk at Westminster of him not daring to resign, of caring to lose out financially, misses the point; this is a matter of principle. "Are you," he says, "sent to Westminster as lobby fodder or to exercise your own judgment on matters of national importance?"

If he loses the vote because some people in his constituency do not like his Euro-scepticism and his opposition to the Prime Minister in last year's leadership challenge, so be it.

Yet, the issues go deeper and are to do with his personality. He is not a small-talk, cocktail party man - that is, he is actually aloof and arrogant.

Angela Fraser, one of his most outspoken critics, said: "He wanted to know about his problems in the constituency, I said I would not enjoy telling him. He insisted - and he didn't like it." Mrs Fraser says the criticisms are "many and varied" and "boil down to his nature".

Nothing illustrates his behaviour more perfectly, she contends, than last year's leadership contests when he polled local senior members asking how he should vote, sent round the result (55% in favour of John Major), then went on TV arguing for John Redwood.

Sir George is unabashed; the poll was "consultative, not binding," he said. He cannot see why people should feel angry their views were ignored or why they should think him high-handed for sending round the results and then doing the opposite.

"If George gets defeated, he'll apply for the Chiltern Hundreds and cause a by-election, which would be disastrous," said Mr Kee.

Mrs Fraser added: "It's a two-edged sword, we don't want a by-election but equally we can't have a pistol to our heads."

One clincher as the members vote next Friday might be where Sir George himself chooses to live. It's not south of the M25 and not even on the north side, but outside the boundary altogether - in less smart Dorking.