The Archer Affair: Car dealer Norris kept his political engine running in case of emergency

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AS A maverick politician with a colourful private life, Steven Norris may appear at first sight to be the last person the Tories should choose to replace Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare as mayoral candidate.

Yet the chequered business and romantic past of the former transport minister is likely to be overlooked by a party desperate for a man with a sharp brain and even sharper media skills.

Street-smart and intelligent, Mr Norris has been described as a politico- barrow boy of the modern age and should cope admirably with the task of scouring the capital for crucial Tory and floating voters.

The former MP, one of Westminster's most accomplished smoothies, achieved notoriety for working his way through not one but five mistresses during his ministerial career.

Brought up in a back-street terrace in Liverpool, he made a million then lost a million as a car dealer and has shown an Archer-like ability to bounce back from failure.

Defeated as MP for Oxford East in 1987 by Andrew Smith, now Chief Secretary to the Treasury, he returned to Parliament as MP for Epping Forest in 1988 and rose to transport minister for London under John Major's administration.

In his autobiography, Changing Trains (dubbed "Changing Dames" by some critics), Mr Norris admits that he was one of the few MPs who persuaded Michael Heseltine to challenge Mrs Thatcher before her downfall in 1990.

Coupled with his pro-European views, such a role in the assassination of the former leader has not endeared him to many on the right of the party.

When he ran against Lord Archer for the mayoral nomination, he knew that his opponent had a much higher profile among the grass roots, but believed his experience would win out.

Mr Norris easily beat the other candidates for mayor, MP John Wilkinson, former council leader Bob Blackman, activist Mark Kotecha and former council leader Andrew Boff.

Unfortunately, Mr Norris lost a significant amount of support when he was inadvertently caught on tape stating that he would not back Lord Archer "dead or alive".

However, his campaign team was made up of some of the finest Conservative brains. On board were: Ceri Evans, the former central office TV guru who softened Mr Hague's image and dreamed up the "Gold Blend"-style party broadcasts; Mark Fulbrook, former adviser to Norman Lamont; Alex Challoner, senior Tory strategist; and Barney Towns, former special adviser to Mr Hague until he became leader.

The Independent learnt last night that the entire team has not been disbanded despite Lord Archer's victory in October and are in place to fight a new campaign.

Despite his lack of Lord Archer's popular appeal, a Norris candidacy would cause considerable discomfort to Labour as the London Evening Standard may now back him instead of Frank Dobson. He will also unite the Tory party around a single figure.

Mr Norris was director general of the Road Haulage Association from 1997 until this summer, when he stood down to campaign full time for the Tory nomination. He is currently without a job.