Election 1997: The great granny massacre, part two

Hester Lacey in Christchurch, where VAT on fuel lost the Tories a by-election
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Christchurch is a sleepy, pretty little seaside town. But metaphorically at least, its quiet streets were running with political blood in July 1993, when the death of long-standing Conservative MP Robert Adley led to a by-election. "An army of killer grannies will today lead the massacre of Christchurch," as one newspaper put it on voting day - pensioners make up over a third of the electorate, and these pensioners were on the warpath. The vital issue of the moment was the imposition of VAT on fuel, and, killer grannies or not, the result was a humiliating defeat for the Conservatives. In a seat that had been considered among the safest in the land, true-blue since 1906, there was a 35 per cent swing to the Liberal Democrats - the largest ever against a government in a by-election. Local ex-teacher Diana Maddock swept in with a majority of over 16,000. This time around she will be defending her seat against former Tory roads minister Christopher Chope (it's a two-horse race; the Labour candidate lost his deposit in 1993).

As the Conservatives have loudly pointed out, every Tory by-election defeat under the last Parliament was reversed in the general election. But is it possible that Christchurch's flirtation with the Lib Dems could turn into something more lasting? Local painter Christopher Hollick, presiding over an exhibition of watercolours of Wimborne, Christchurch Priory and the beach-huts of Mudeford last Thursday, thought Mrs Maddock might be there to stay. "She has made her presence known, she's very positive, comes across as straightforward, honest and intelligent. She seems less full of herself than many other politicians. You can't be in politics without wanting some power, but she doesn't seem like a complete walking ego. She's kept a high profile locally as well."

Could he name the Tory candidate? "You've put me on the spot there ... I don't know, I don't think he's a local man." He said he would be voting Lib Dem. "I'd like to give Mr Blair my vote, but it won't do any good here. But if the Conservatives get in nationally, Labour may as well give up altogether. I can't imagine what the opposition parties will do if the Conservatives get in again. And I don't think the Tories will be thrashed - I think it will be close."

Nadine Forman, leading a couple of toddlers through the sunny close of Christchurch Priory, was also planning to vote Liberal. "I think they are more of a young person's party. I also like their pro-European stance. It's crazy to start talking about pulling out now; we have to stick with it. The Tories have been around too long, and obviously Labour haven't got a cat's chance round here."

Mr and Mrs Prior, also enjoying the sun outside the Priory, were less convinced. "The Lib Dems may come across as very nice people but they simply have no policy, no notions, no ideas; they would be in well over their heads if they found themselves in government," said Mr Prior, a retired businessman.

"We shall both be voting Conservative like we always have," added his wife. "This country has done very well under the Conservatives and people need to remember that. Young people just have no idea what they are letting us all in for if they vote out the Conservatives; many of them don't remember the messes the socialists have made in the past."

Alan Lack, recently retired to the area, had brought his 10-year-old son down to feed the swans on the waterfront after school. "I haven't made my mind up. I find the whole election really quite worrying. What comes out is insufficient definite policies. You hear people saying that taxes will go down, but you know there is no way taxes can go down without services going down. It's all very negative - I think one isn't so much voting for things, as voting to keep out things you don't want. None of the parties are being very persuasive, they are all trying to appease the majority, and in governing a country, you can't do that."

Up the road in West Moors village, in the north of the constituency, Dr Tom McKinstry was treating the Lib Dem campaigning team to a sustaining snack of champagne, Pringles and chocolate wafers. Mrs Maddock, in defiant orange jacket, was quietly determined. There was a ladder in the heel of her black tights; canvassing is hard on the hosiery. She gamely posed for photographs with melons and purple sprouting broccoli over the road at J S Ward and Son, High Quality Greengrocers (pears in port and tarragon vinegar and various posh preserves); the proprietor was keeping his voting intentions a secret, but they "might be yellow", he said with a wink.

Meanwhile, over their refreshments in the surgery, the Lib Dem team, which today included Earl Russell, grabbed the chance for a surreptitious fag and a quick natter. The main topic of conversation, through the fug of Silk Cut? Bemoaning the voting intentions of their recalcitrant offspring. Libs, even Lib lords, seem to have a strange tendency to breed Labs. "I simply can't understand my son. He's a yuppie, with a mobile phone and a good job," sighed one of the doctor's staff, to nods and clucks all round. "I just can't believe he votes Labour."