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Has Norman Lamont finally found a perch?

Harrogate, once a true-blue constituency, is looking for a morale- boosting candidate. By Paul Routledge
THE IDEA that Harrogate, the poshest place in Yorkshire, could be anything but a safe Tory seat is clearly preposterous. Generations of well-off tykes have sent a succession of Conservative MPs to Westminster, some of them of stultifying dullness, and with the exception of the man who resigned to become Viceroy of India in 1924, none of them of any great political repute. An unbroken line of Sir Tufton Buftons stretches back to 1918.

But this week, the Harrogate and Knaresborough Conservative Association must think the unthinkable - a Liberal Democrat victory at the general election - and decide who is best fitted to avert it. New constituency boundaries have given 12,000 votes - mostly true-blue, and equivalent to the Tory majority in 1992 - to the seat next door.

On Friday, the faithful meet to choose their prospective parliamentary candidate. The choice is between a former Chancellor who nurses a grievance against John Major, a special adviser to the current Chancellor who likes to be bracketed with Michael Portillo, and a politically ambitious rich fellow from the Borders of whom no one has heard.

Norman Lamont, the ex-Chancellor, whose seat at Kingston upon Thames is disappearing, has made it to the shortlist, having been turned down in half a dozen other constituencies. His candidacy is being boosted by the ubiquitous "friends" who say he has the support of Smith Square and would bring a higher political profile to the spa town. "Some ministers on the right think he wasn't such a bad Chancellor," said one Westminster insider. "They think history will treat him well. He has got the bitterness out of his system, and he loves the House so much - give him a seat. Others say he is consumed with bitterness, and you can't buy him off."

It is also suggested that Downing Street would like him to get a constituency to keep him busy and quiet in the run-up to the general election. Furthermore, there is said to be discreet pressure from the Conservative high command on Harrogate's Tories to accept the former minister. That is officially denied, as well it might be. Leaning on Yorkshiremen to do something is a well-known tactic to get them to do the opposite. When it was put about that Mr Lamont would be a natural choice for the Vale of York, a new and adjoining constituency, its association officers said Tony Blair would stand a better chance. So "The Badger" may be disappointed.

The beneficiary could be 33-year-old David Ruffley, special adviser to Kenneth Clarke at the Treasury since Mr Lamont's departure. Mr Ruffley, a buttoned-down corporate lawyer from the City, has been with Mr Clarke at Education and the Home Office. Son of a town clerk of Darwen, Lancs, he is the kind of man who has two fax machines in his office. Like his rivals, he is under a Trappist oath of silence, but his "friends" insist that his northern street cred will stand him in good stead.

In fact, his slender Up North credentials end at the time he left Bolton Grammar School to go to Cambridge, where he read history and law at Queens' and - like Mr Portillo - came under the spell of the high-Tory don Maurice Cowling. There, according to Mr Portillo's biographer, Michael Gove, he displayed a "distrust of mandarin pieties, the relish for intrigue, the cool, sceptical intelligence and civilised taste for grown-up relaxations that mark out Cowling's pupils". In other words, a man who knows the main chance when he sees it.

Mr Ruffley's friends like to refer to this passage as if he shared some of Mr Portillo's outlandish right-wing views, and he was certainly on parade at Lady Thatcher's "no nation" rant last week. He has been described as "Clarke's right-wing conscience", but that is nonsense, says Tory MP Jerry Hayes. "He is not right-wing. He is perfectly sensible, like the rest of us."

While these Treasury heavyweights slug it out through proxies, the third candidate, Ian Liddell-Grainger, hopes to slip in through the middle. A former Tynedale councillor and unsuccessful Euro-candidate, he lives in a manor house at Heddon-on-the-Wall and manages the family investments, chiefly property. Although he is said to be distantly related to the Royal Family, he does not appear to have any "friends" in Westminster. But he has evidently quite a few enemies in Northumberland. One described him as "short, fat and balding: just a rich bloke with a big mouth". He added: "I can't see anyone choosing him over a professional politician."

Nonetheless, he came within four votes of winning the safe Tory seat of Shropshire North, and one admirer said: "He's quite well-known in North- east Tory circles, because there are so few of them. He is extremely jolly and has a good sense of humour." He will need it, if he wins. The restive Tories of Harrogate and Knaresborough have made life too uncomfortable for their sitting MP of 21 years, Robert Banks. They felt he didn't do enough for them, and the fact that he lived in some style in Suffolk rather than in the constituency did not help.

All of which, and more, makes the Liberal Democrats distinctly bullish about their prospects for the election. Under the boundary changes, Harrogate and Knaresborough loses 12,099 voters to the Vale of York. The Tory majority in 1992 was a healthy 12,589 over the Lib Dems, but a BBC computer projection suggests that if the new boundaries had been in place then, the majority would have been only 5,500.

Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat candidate, is leader of Harrogate Borough Council, on which his party now has 41 of the 60 seats. Willis, aged 54, the head of a high school in a tough part of east Leeds, concedes: "It will be difficult. But we are in a strong position. We believe we can win."

Losing the seat would be the final ignominy. Mr Major may have survived Bastardgate, and Mr Lamont has got over Threshergate, but could the party have any credibility after Harrogate?