Election 1997: If Britain is booming, this isn't Britain Coe's hopes fade into the middle distance

Robin Stummer in Falmouth and Camborne, Cornwall
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The job centre at Penryn says it all. Of the hundred or so vacancies, all but a dozen are for restaurant and bar staff, sales assistants - and chambermaids. None of them pays more than pounds 4 an hour, and most offer about pounds 3.20, for what is often short-term or part-time work. Cornwall is broke, and the constituency of Falmouth and Camborne is Cornwall at its most broke.

It's not all picture postcard. Barely 20 miles from the Helford river in the south to Portreath in the north, even less from east to west, the constituency includes stocky, slate-and-stone Redruth and its neighbour Camborne - towns that have never recovered from the death of tin mining and engineering - and Falmouth, where tourism struggles to fill the gap left by shipyards. Unemployment, officially, is around 10 per cent, unofficially as high as 25 per cent and, believably, up to 80 per cent among men on some of the grey council estates. An occasional, ripped, Conservative poster boasts "Britain is booming". If so, this isn't Britain.

What it is, is a land ripe for salvation and, in theory, there are three parties running neck and neck to do the honours. The question is, which three? At the last election, former Olympic gold medallist Sebastian Coe held the constituency for the Tories with 21,150 votes, a majority of 3,000 over the Liberal Democrats, with Labour just a thousand votes behind.

This time, things are different. On the scene has come the multi-millionaire businessman Peter de Savary, Eighties "saviour" of Falmouth industry and the Referendum Party's candidate. Clad in a blue, velvety jacket, possessed of a Radio 2 announcer's voice and a tan that suggests two weeks cruising in the Med, de Savary, 52, is the man to lure disillusioned Tories and so clear the path for Labour and the Lib Dems. Presumably, the fact that he recently spent pounds 17,600 on 163 rare Cuban cigars - at pounds 108 each probably as much as a Cornish worker earns in a week - merely adds to his cachet.

Assisted by his daughter Lisa, his mother, and a handful of helpers, Mr de Savary took to the streets of Falmouth last Thursday in an attempt to gauge support. He had cause to be pleased. A steady trickle of the middle- and old-aged shook his hand, saying: "Well done" or "You don't have to convert me to your cause."

"We're very pleased with the level of support:" Mr de Savary said. "I feel, as a very patriotic person, that Europe is an issue that is so important that those of us who understand it must bring it to the attention of everyone else."

Among those enlightened by Mr de Savary was Alan Timmins, 47, an ice- cream seller. "Everyone in Falmouth is downtrodden," he said as he collected a pile of Referendum posters for his van. "We're looking for an opportunity to boom again - small, individual businessmen are being swallowed up."

Despite, or because of, the de Savary threat, Lib Dems and Labour remain confident. "I've the advantage of being a local candidate with a track record that will stand me in good stead," says Terrye Jones, 42, who runs a printing company and is fighting Falmouth a second time for the Lib Dems. A local councillor for 10 years, Mrs Jones believes her local knowledge will help her to victory, which would take a swing of 3 per cent in this, number 13 on the Lib Dem hit-list. "Our policy of saying we'll put tax up doesn't affect people here," she says. "Fifty per cent for people earning over pounds 100,000 a year - that's Monopoly money to anybody here where the average wage is pounds 8,000-pounds 10,000."

Mrs Jones claims there are signs of a return to long-lost Methodist voting patterns. "Paddy Ashdown's views on the area are in line with the old tradition of Cornwall - non-conformist, anti-establishment and individualistic.

"What is interesting is the number of people who justify their reason for not voting Conservative this time by saying their great grandfather or father used to be Liberal voters, and they are turning back to their roots."

But here, the ghost of Lloyd George has New Labour for company in the shape of Candy Atherton, a stimulating hybrid of Peter Mandelson and Dawn French. Backed by a large team of volunteers and party workers, Ms Atherton, 41, a former mayor of Islington, is hoping to capitalise on the decline of the Tory vote. However, since she was chosen from an all-woman shortlist in 1995, she has been criticised as an "urban outsider" who has been "imposed", criticisms she strongly rejects.

"I was raised in the country and went to London, like many Cornish young people, to get a job," she says. "I grew up in Sussex and Surrey - hardly urban." Yet her selection did cause a split in the local Labour Party, and one councillor, Jim Geach, is standing against her as an Independent Labour candidate. Ms Atherton cites unemployment as the main issue: "... the fact that our traditional industries are in decline, that we don't have a development agency and that the few jobs that have come here have mostly been seasonal, casualised work."

Oh yes, the third (or is it fourth?) horse. Sadly, despite several requests, a Tory aide passed on the following message: "Mr Coe is too busy writing letters." Job applications?

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