November 08, 1993 12:00 PM

AT FIRST IT SEEMED LIKE JUST ANOTHER British sex scandal—nothing more than a junior government minister caught cheating on his wife. What with all the headlines about toe-sucking and cellular-phone lovemaking in the royal family, why would anyone care about an obscure Conservative Member of Parliament who was having trouble keeping his breeks buttoned? But when the London tabs learned that Junior Transport Minister Steven Norris, 48, had two girlfriends, the story took a new turn. Then they discovered a third. And a fourth. When the count reached five, the tabloids went into overdrive. This was no example of British reserve.

The blaring headlines (MR. NORRIS FINDS HIS TRANSPORT OF DELIGHT) came at an inauspicious time for the ruling Tories, who were holding; their annual conference in Blackpool. This year’s theme? Family values. But so far, Norris’s political career seems in little danger of collapsing. Prime Minister John Major was said to believe Norris “was entitled to act as he likes in his private life.” If anything, his fellow Tories seem in awe of his capacity for complicating his life. “Having one woman on the go is bad enough,” says one senior party official. “Two is alarming—and three is madness.”

Whatever five may be, no one had a word for it. Of late, Norris’s love life has been as snarled as noon traffic in Piccadilly. The trouble began in September, when Daily Mail social diarist Nigel Dempster noted that Norris had separated from his wife of 24 years, Vicky Cecil-Gibson, 45. Vicky had packed up their two children, Anthony, 19, and Edward, 8, Dempster wrote, and moved out of their home in Essex after learning her husband had taken up with Jennifer Sharp, 40, promotions director of Harpers & Queen magazine.

Norris’s affair with Sharp came as news to The Times’s political reporter Sheila Gunn, 45, who had been Norris’s lover for the past three years. Neither Norris nor his wife chose to comment, but both Sharp and Gunn were clearly shaken. “It’s all a bit awkward, really,” Sharp told reporters. Added Gunn, whose affair was disclosed by a tab: “I do not think he has behaved in an honorable way.”

Neither does Emma Courtney, a secretary to a House of Commons MP whose involvement with Norris was revealed by the Daily Express. Courtney, 29, had known, of course, that Norris was married. She even knew he had been seeing Gunn. But Sharp came as a revelation, and she promptly, but regretfully, broke off her affair with Norris. She was, a colleague reported, “absolutely in love.”

With that, two women from Norris’s not-too-distant past came to light. Surgeon Clare Marx, 39, said she had gone out with Norris for eight years before deciding in 1986 that his promises to divorce his wife were diversionary. And sales executive Lynn Taylor, 46, described her five-year affair with Norris in the Daily Mail. She said the minister is a playful rogue who prefers his women smart, successful and a bit on the heavy side. “He was very gentle and loving in bed,” Taylor wrote, “and I was always satisfied.”

The unprepossessing, somewhat puffy Norris hardly looks the part of a Lothario. The son of a battery sergeant major in the Royal Artillery, he grew up middle-class in Liverpool, graduated from Oxford, wed the impeccably well-bred Cecil-Gibson in 1969, and made millions through a used-car dealership. He won a parliamentary seat in 1983, lost it in 1987 and was elected to a different seat in 1988.

Several women report he is a charming and courtly raconteur. Plus he has the endearing habit of proposing marriage to virtually everyone he seduces. Says one MP’s secretary, apparently charmed herself: “Mr. Norris is a great one for getting a woman to believe that she is the only one.”

JUDITH NEWMAN

LAURA SANDERSON HEALY in London

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