Norris reprieved by Tories' `untidy' democracy
Wednesday 15 December 1999
Less than 72 hours after Steven Norris was dropped, Mr Ancram appeared on the steps of Conservative Central Office to announce that the flamboyant former minister was back in the race. The decision means that Mr Norris will tonight join five other candidates before an expected 1,500 party members at the crucial hustings meeting in west London.
As the former MP celebrated his reprieve with a round of typically forthright interviews, Tory backbenchers were furious that the selection had descended into "a shambles".
The 11th-hour move to restore him to the shortlist came after three days of further turmoil for a party already suffering from the trauma of Lord Archer's resignation.
William Hague stepped in yesterday morning to draw up the face-saving formula to allow Mr Norris another chance. The Tory leader had been forced to intervene after a rebellion on Monday night by constituency chairmen who objected to a decision by a small selection board to bar the former MP for Epping Forest.
In an attempt to defuse the issue, Mr Hague and Mr Ancram recommended to the Conservative Party Board that its mayoral shortlist of four candidates should be expanded to six. Both Sir Archie Hamilton, the chairman of the back-bench 1922 Committee, and Lord Strathclyde, the Tory leader in the Lords, agreed wholeheartedly with the decision. Sir Archie said: "I think there was broad support among MPs for a wider field. Nobody could quite understand why Steve Norris had been excluded."
After a four-hour meeting, the 15-strong board unanimously agreed to allow Mr Norris back on the list. However, the collective sigh of relief among the Shadow Cabinet was short-lived as search for a scapegoat for the chaos began in earnest.
Some party insiders claimed last night that the whole problem stemmed from Mr Hague's decision to devolve the shortlisting process to the voluntary wing of the party instead of professional officers.
"This wouldn't have happened in the old days, when we had grandees who took care of these things. How you can leave such an important decision to amateurs is beyond me," said one source. A 20-strong panel of so-called amateurs plunged the party into chaos on Saturday when they decided that Mr Norris was unfit to be Tory candidate.
Toby Vincent, the chairman of the London region who led the Mayoral Selection Executive, was yesterday blamed for allowing the selection to get out of hand. One member of the executive said: "Toby's a wonderful campaigner, very enthusiastic and a great canvasser, but he has never held public office and to be honest was out of his depth."
Similarly, Roger Pratt, the London regional director, failed to offer any guidance to the "amateurs" about the consequences of their decision. Another insider said: "He should have gently pointed out that leaving out Norris at this stage would have impact on the wider party."
However, the Norris bandwagon could come to a shuddering halt tonight if he fails to impress the 1,500 party members at the hustings meeting at Holland Park School. With strong local support for Baroness Hanham, the leader of Kensington and Chelsea council, and a formidable party machine behind another candidate, Baroness Miller, Mr Norris is certainly not guaranteed to make the ballot paper.
Last night, a weary Central Office source tried to laugh off the events of the past few days. "Look on the bright side. It's a great way of ensuring that our candidate is on the front page for four days running," he said.
TORIES BEING BLAMED FOR THE MAYOR `SHAMBLES'
The Tory leader is criticised by some colleagues for failing to exclude Lord Archer in the summer. They claim that in his desire to portray the Tories as more democratic than Labour, Mr Hague forgot to exercise sensible control over the selection process.
The party chairman was being blamed last night by some MPs furious at the chaos and confusion of recent days. Once Lord Archer had resigned, Mr Ancram
missed a golden opportunity to seize the initiative, his enemies say.
Critics of the chairman of the London region claim he has no experience of managing a party machine. Some party officers say that Bob Neill, the former London region chief, would never have allowed the voluntary wing to be so out of tune with Central Office.
The senior vice-chairman of the party has been accused of undermining Mr Norris on behalf of his mother, Di Collins, one of the four Epping Forest Tories who complained about the ex-MPs extra-marital affairs. Allies of Mr Collins say he offered "advice" internally.
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