Stourport-on-Severn is a sleepy backwater in Worcestershire, popular with tourists on summer weekends but not exactly eventful. For a long time it was the sort of place where front-page news meant a schoolboy doing well in a national maths contest.

Of late, though, the local paper has been rather too exciting for many of its inhabitants, who find themselves with the first mayor in modern British history to be sent to jail during his office - certainly the first to emerge, unabashed, to resume his role as first citizen.

Patrick James Charles Duffy has been a feature of public life in Stourport for a quarter of a century, his ruddy features familiar all over this elegant town. 'Duffygate' began in May 1991, when the Tory veteran was standing for re-election in the Mitton ward of Wyre Forest district council and the Central ward of Stourport town council. Among those standing against him was Nicholas John Smith, an Independent and a newcomer to local politics. Duffy was duly elected in both, along with, in Central, two Independent Conservatives. Smith polled 184 votes in Central, neatly depriving the Labour candidate and the other Independent of crucial votes.

Five months later, a by-election was called in Stourport's Stour and Wilden ward when the sitting councillor was sent to jail for his third drink-driving offence; a Conservative also named Patrick Duffy, he was the mayor's 22-year-old nephew. Smith stood again.

As no voter had ever clapped eyes on him, the Stourport News dispatched a journalist to the home address on his nomination forms, 19 Lion Hill, part of a Georgian terrace with commanding views of the boats bobbing in Stourport Basin. The reporter was surprised to discover that number 19 was a betting shop.

The journalist knew that, legally, candidates had to live or work in the district. But careful scrutiny of the preoccupied betters in the shop failed to turn up Smith, although an office used by Duffy was discovered next door. The story of Stourport's apparently phantom candidate was duly splashed all over the front page.

When Duffy returned from a funeral in Ireland, the West Mercia Constabulary pounced. But then Duffy produced Smith. Duffy admitted that he had organised the necessary formalities for Smith's candidacy, and that Smith had done no canvassing, but he insisted he had merely been helping an old friend.

At first Smith confirmed Duffy's story but he was vague on details: he could not even recall which wards he had contested. He told the detectives that, while visiting Parliament with Duffy several years previously, he had mentioned going into politics. 'Mr Duffy indicated that he could help me,' he said. Though he lived in Wolverhampton, Smith continued, he used to work in the betting shop and often stayed in a room behind it. Duffy had told him he did not have to live permanently in Stourport to stand. Smith said that during the May election he had asked Duffy whether he should not be out canvassing. 'He said 'not initially'. He said I wasn't known in the area, the best thing to do was to write to the newspapers. Mr Duffy helped me put a letter together.'

Smith was shown the nomination forms for the later October by-election - the police suspected that Duffy had entered Smith without telling him. In his statement to the police, Smith was vague again: 'It appears to look like my writing,' he said, 'but it's not my usual signature.' Then he said: 'In October 1991 I wasn't aware I was standing,' adding, by way of explanation, 'my drink problem was particularly bad and I couldn't really remember one day from the next.'

He was then shown a campaign letter delivered to the Stourport News during the by-election, which the police suspected Duffy of forging. 'The signature is not my usual one,' said Smith, 'not quite.'

After three years' investigation, Stourport's mayor appeared at Stafford Crown Court last November. The prosecution dropped a conspiracy charge against Duffy, who then pleaded guilty to getting a friend to witness Smith's signature on his nomination forms when she had not in fact seen Smith sign them, an offence against the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act. Mr Justice Judge concluded that Duffy had acted as 'an agent for a candidate who on the face of it was standing against him . . . with the intention that the votes for independent candidates would be split.' A week before Christmas, Patrick James Duffy was sentenced to six months' imprisonment and taken in handcuffs to Shrewsbury jail.

Mr Justice Judge had told Stourport's first citizen: 'You will have enemies who will snigger at the downfall of Patrick Duffy.' But the mayor was about to have the last laugh. His lawyers appealed, arguing that even if he had helped Smith in order to split the vote against himself - which Duffy denied - there was no law against it. The appeal judges were forced to concede that there was no law against bogus candidates (though they suggested this should be looked at). Lord Justice Simon Brown said a fine would have been adequate punishment for Duffy's forgery offence, and as he had served a month in jail he was given an absolute discharge.

Released from the cells, Duffy said he had merely supported Smith's candidature as he would any young person going into local government. The stunned Labour-controlled Wyre Forest promptly removed Duffy from all committees on which he sat; his fellow Tories, however, pledged total support and the local Tory MP, Anthony Coombs, declared that despite his 'misdemeanour' Duffy should continue as mayor.

Sitting in the Mayor's Parlour, Duffy looks the very model of a municipal mandarin in black jacket, striped trousers and half-moon spectacles. If the brightness of a nose is any guide, the 61-year-old mayor is still indignant about his Christmas porridge. How, though, did he explain the letter to the newspaper, which Mr Justice Judge had said was forged? Mr Duffy admitted that he had drafted that letter. But, he insisted, he had then sent it to Smith, who 'signed it and took it into them'.

He pushed over a note from Smith, which, he said, would explain everything: Dear Pat, I am writing to apologise for any misunderstanding that may have arisen due to what I initially said to the police. Such was my surprise and shock at being arrested that I acted and spoke in a state of semi-panic and probably said some things that I thought they wanted to hear . . . the night I signed the election papers is still rather a blur to me. Also the letter to the press . . . I am still at a loss for when and how I got it to them.'

When Duffy sweeps into the wood-panelled council chamber in scarlet robe, lace ruff and gold chain, the Labour members studiously ignore the clerk's command, 'Ladies and gentlemen, please stand.' While the Tories are careful to prefix their contributions with 'Mr Mayor', Labour speeches remain pointedly unadorned. A Labour motion 'that organisations requesting the attendance of the Mayor at Social Functions be informed that Councillor Duffy is serving under a vote of 'No Confidence' and is not representing the majority of the Members of the Council' is withdrawn for further consideration at the last minute.

So then, stalemate. The traditional Mayor's Quiz may have been cancelled (lack of support, say the organisers), as may the annual Mayor's ball (lack of time, insists Duffy). Duffygate may have been raised in Parliament. But neither the law nor political scandal has shifted Patrick James, who is not one of the Wyre Forest councillors facing re-election tomorrow, and could, if local government reorganisation goes ahead, remain on the council until 1997. Though his mayoral term ends this month, he is already talking about another.

The Mayor is unable to help in contacting Nicholas Smith - 'He's not on the phone' - but when finally tracked down to a Shropshire village 21 miles away, Smith turns out to be a 31-year-old Jack-the-lad in jeans and white sweatshirt. His remark to Duffy outside Parliament, he says, had been only a passing one. 'He's obviously thought, 'Ah, I can do something with this.' He said 'Why don't you stand in Stourport?' And I said, 'I don't live there,' and he said, 'You don't have to.' He said, 'Why don't you be an Independent?' He's basically moulded me into a political tool that he can use.'

When Smith had raised the question of canvassing, 'he said, 'Don't bother. We'll get your name known first. I'll write a letter to the paper. I've got an idea of what you believe in.' He showed it to me. The letter was about local issues. They were basically common sense. You couldn't disagree with them.'

Smith says that the first time he had known he had been a candidate in the October by-election was when the police telephoned him. 'I would not actually tell them he had forged my signature. I said 'It does not look like mine but I can't say it definitely isn't' That was to help Pat. I did not lie but I was conservative with the truth, shall we say.' He had also played dumb about the letter to the Stourport News, which, he now claims, Duffy had indeed forged. He says he had written the note shown by Duffy only 'to keep Pat out of the shit'.

Now it was Mr Smith's turn to be indignant. 'He has forged my signature, he has rigged the election and he has got away with it. He's very plausible.' Duffy's arrogant interviews in the local press had infuriated him, he says. And his willingness to continue covering up for Duffy had been shaken by recent revelations about government misbehaviour. 'Sleazy behaviour - Stourport is an example of it at a local level,' he says. The voters of Wyre Forest will be able to think about that as they go to vote tomorrow.

(Photograph omitted)

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