Tories were embarrassed that Mr Norris, who was backed by Michael Portillo and other MPs, was rejected from joining the shortlist by 12 votes to eight after a letter against him had been circulated by his former constituency chairman, Diane Collins, who is the mother of the party's senior vice- chairman, Tim Collins.
Some of Mr Norris's supporters said she led a "militant blue-rinse coven" from his former Epping Forest constituency that was running a vendetta against him. The row plunged the Tories, still recoiling over the Archer affair, into fresh turmoil. The involvement of Mrs Collins led to claims of "nobbling" Mr Norris. His supporters alleged that Mr Collins had been campaigning privately against him getting on to the short list.
Andrew Lansley, a senior Tory figure, confirmed he will discuss the affair with Mr Collins and the party chairman, Michael Ancram, today at Conservative Central Office, but said it was a routine meeting. Mr Collins was not available for comment last night.
Mr Lansley, a member of the Conservative Party board, said he was surprised by the vote. "I thought we had arrived at the point where one could make a distinction between private life and public morality."
Mr Norris said the panel was "shell-shocked" after Lord Archer resigned in disgrace from the race after allegations about a libel trial. "I said they would sooner pick a squeaky-clean loser than somebody with a tabloid past. That's exactly what has happened." Attacking Mrs Collins's letter, Mr Norris said: "It says I couldn't be trusted because I implied I had a happy private life. To imagine that anyone in those circumstances is likely to expose their entire private life is nonsense."
Asked on BBC TV's Breakfast with Frost why he had fallen out with his former constituency chairman, Mr Norris said: "She's got her own reasons, God bless her. She has got to live with herself. I would not like to make it more difficult for her."
Baroness Miller, one of the four now on the Tory shortlist, dismissed Mr Norris' "squeaky- clean" comment and said she did not have "the faintest idea" why he had been dumped by the selection panel.
"I don't know if he was talking about me, but when that's been put to me before I've said I've no intention of being a `squeaky clean' loser, as he said, I intend to be a very gracious winner.
"That's what I'm about, that's what I intend to put my mind to and frankly I'm not going to be diverted by these things."
Tory supporters, who believe Labour has been handed the contest on a plate, were threatening to table a no-confidence motion over the selection panel today but party leaders said there was no prospect of reopening the contest.
Mr Norris later said that he was being urged to stand as an independent, but a close friend said he would not do so.
The former transport minister added: "I have literally in the last 24 hours had enough offers of serious money to consider it but my loyalty is to the Tory party."
Labour's Ken Livingstone said: "On behalf of all Labour candidates I would like to congratulate the Tory selection committee and give them my heartfelt thanks for having eliminated the only Tory candidate we feared having to fight."
Another prospective Labour candidate, Frank Dobson, said: "The Tory mayoral candidacy has descended into an even greater farce than anyone could have imagined.
"Those who chose Jeffrey Archer have decreed that Steve Norris isn't good enough for them."
Glenda Jackson, the third Labour hopeful, said: "This proves that whilst Screaming Lord Sutch may be dead, his memory lives on in William Hague's Tory party."
r Following the removal of Mr Norris the bookmaker William Hill made Mr Livingstone 8-11 favourite to become mayor. He was followed by Mr Dobson 11-8, Ms Jackson 8-1, Lady Miller 20-1, Andrew Boff 40-1, Mark Kotecha 50-1, Susan Kramer 80-1, Baroness Hanham 100-1.
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