Reigate's shocked middle classes learn to love a rebel

IF HE had travelled back over the North Downs with foreboding, Sir George Gardiner will have been reassured by gin and tonic time today. Reigate welcomes rebels, writes Jonathan Foster.

Sir George, convenor of Thatcherite Maastricht dissenters, last week carried his Conservative association with him through the lobbies. 'He represents his local party's unhappiness with the federal implications of the treaty, and supports the Government when it has to be supported,' said Richard Bennett, leader of Reigate Tory councillors.

It was a neat summary of the Gardiner voting record, implicitly critical of a Government which many Conservative voters in the constituency want punished, if not ditched. Money talks in Surrey; Maastricht is an irrelevant misdemeanour and the local MP is unlikely to lose much local support. 'He voted to stop the social contract, didn't he?' one man said. 'He was in favour of us having the same rights as employees in Europe,' said another.

Sir George anticipated last week's quarrels more than a year ago when he asked each of the 24 members of the Tory association executive for their views. Some told him that the 17,664 majority in the 1992 general election sent him to Westminster to support the Government. It was his duty as MP to maintain that support.

But a majority of executive members were critical of the treaty and the Government's handling of the European issue. Too little information had caused indifference and ignorance of the significance of Maastricht. 'At Westminster, Sir George has passed on the views of his constituency party,' one activist said.

'He's not going to be in any trouble, but the party has got problems in Reigate. Everybody now knows somebody who has been made redundant, and everybody knows somebody with negative equity in their house.'

The unemployed are professional, managerial and profoundly upset. This was never meant to happen to solicitors or accountants, and the culture shock is potentially disastrous for the Tories. Dissent has rediscovered its voice in middle class Surrey. Yesterday, Greenpeace was expecting a record attendance at its fair in Redhill.