Norris camp rebels against the Tory party's 'core' of racists

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A growing gulf between William Hague and Steven Norris, the Tory candidate for mayor of London, emerged yesterday after the Norris camp claimed that an "unpleasant core" of the Conservative Party was racist, sexist and homophobic.

In the strongest evidence yet of Mr Norris' strategy to distance himself from the rightward shift of the Tories, his chief of staff confirmed his liberal views ran contrary to those of the heart of the party. Ceri Evans, Mr Norris' most senior aide, said in a secretly taped conversation that their campaign was feeling "increasingly detached" from elements of the Tory party.

"His credentials on equality, the sexual agenda and race and everything are utterly impeccable," Mr Evans told the London-based Asian television company Zee TV.

"Not only are they utterly impeccable, they cost him dear amongst the rather unpleasant core of the party from which we feel increasingly detached." Mr Evans, who was a senior strategist at Conservative Central Office until late last year, made no attempt to deny or disown his remarks, insisting they were "absolutely incontrovertible".

But his comments are likely to anger and embarrass Mr Hague, whose views on asylum- seekers have led to accusations that he is pandering to racism.

In an attempt to salvage the situation, Mr Norris issued a statement asserting that the Tory leader was committed to removing racism from party ranks. "I have never encountered racism in the Conservative Party in nearly 30 years of my membership of it," he said. "I am equally clear that the party under William Hague is as determined to root out racism as it has ever been."

But Mr Evans acknowledged yesterday that there were elements of the party which were prejudiced, just as there were elements in other political parties. "London and the UK should be utterly free from prejudice, whatever that prejudice is based upon - age, gender, ethnicity or sexuality," he said. "Anyone who thinks prejudice has any place in London in the 21st century is downright wrong".

Mr Norris has already defied Mr Hague by refusing to back the Tory campaign to keep Section 28, which bans the promotion of homosexuality in schools, arguing that it left teachers unable to tackle homophobic bullying.

His views on race also caused conflict with Central Office as he opposed immigration bonds and proposals by Ann Widdecombe, the shadow Home Secretary, to restrict immigration.

In a mayoral contest where 20 per cent of voters are of ethnic origin, Mr Norris' stance reflects concern among his team that the Tories are turning off key elements of the electorate.

Susan Kramer, the Liberal Democrat candidate for mayor, claimed that voters were switching from Labour and the Tories to her.

Ms Kramer's support has leapt in recent weeks to put her closely behind Frank Dobson and Mr Norris.