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Used politician: charming model, one careful party, a real goer

Randeep Ramesh follows a consummate performer making his valedictory sales pitch to the electorate
Would you buy a used car from Steven Norris?

Thousands did and "not one of my customers ever complained", the former transport minister reminds us.

For a serial charmer like Mr Norris, selling things is a lifelong obsession. Politics, you see, is not just about the policies, but how well you peddled them. Rarely bested, his skill at the despatch box often saw him upstage cabinet colleagues.

Despite his obvious talents, high office eluded him. Once a millionaire, he suffered financial losses in the 1980s and his political career stalled when it emerged he had wooed a string of women as well as a wife.

Now the former car dealer turned politician is leaving the Commons to "repair the hole in his personal balance sheet".

"I have been rich and I have been famous, but I would rather be rich," he charms.

Before he goes, Mr Norris's pitch-perfect patter will be used to rally true-blue troops in London and the South-east. He still turns in a creaseless performance.

The tone is insistent, the stare unwavering and the message uncluttered.

"Vote for the social chapter, the minimum wage, the union bosses - that is New Labour. The electorate have to remember what this is really is about. The economy," he intones.

And what about New Labour? Dodgy politicos with dodgier policies?

"Tony Blair, lovely chap. A shade too draconian for me. Really, he encapsulated Douglas Hurd's ideas when he was shadow Home Secretary better than we did."

"Jack Straw, very capable and very nice. His mother is my constituent and a very good local councillor. I can't believe he believes what he says ..."

For Mr Norris, this is politics. "What unites all politicians is that we all want the greatest good for the greatest number. There is infinitely more that unites us than divides us," the former salesman soundbites effortlessly.

How, one might ask, can a Tory election chief speak of such things?

"Very easily. If the present polls continue through - and I am fighting to stop them - then Britain will wake up to a Labour government," replies Mr Norris.

If Mr Blair happens to run Whitehall after 1 May, then the super-salesman will tailor his pitch.

It will not be difficult. Dry as dust on economic issues, Mr Norris grew up with the sideburn liberalism of the 1960s that ensured he is "left of the mainstream Conservative Party on many social issues".

Honesty, one imagines, is not always the best policy for politicians. Mr Norris's indiscreet comment about commuters being "dreadful human beings" in 1995 had him up in the press's sights for weeks.

"The media lens is enormously discriminating. Most politicians just obfuscate and it accentuates that. I just believe it is a real turn-off."

Apart from collecting a respectable portfolio of jobs before he departs from the Commons - to a pounds 100,000-a-year post as head of the Road Haulage Association, and another part-time non-executive role with a bus firm - Mr Norris believes leaving Westminster does not mean leaving politics.

"On transport, I might disagree with Andrew [Smith - Labour's frontbench spokesman on transport] on how to tackle the investment problems facing the Tube - but I want what's best for the passenger and I will work for that."

He even admits to the fact that bus deregulation has its weaknesses.

"The sheer volume of competition has let in too many cowboys," says Mr Norris.

The next administration will find it difficult to dismiss his ideas.

Mr Norris single-handedly replaced the Conservatives' road-building fetish with a distinctly green-edged policy.

Only last week, his admission that protesters were right to oppose the controversial Newbury bypass had ministers grumbling.

"Steven took his job seriously," confessed one senior civil servant, "but not himself."