Alone in Essex as old friends fall out

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Malcolm Buckley yesterday contemplated a solitary existence in Basildon council chamber with the sort of determined optimism which Conservative activists have to adopt in these desperate times.

"I suppose I will feel a bit lonely," said Mr Buckley. "But there are a great number of former councillors and party workers who will be working with me to achieve some of our Conservative ideals and put our case forward."

On Thursday Mr Buckley was the only Conservative councillor to survive in Basildon when he fought off the Liberal Democrat challenge in his Wickford South ward by 99 votes. Thirteen of his party colleagues were defeated and Labour took control of the council.

The landslide qualified him for endangered-species status in the Essex town which was the symbol of John Major's General Election victory in 1992. The Tory victory there provided the first clear signal that Labour had lost for the fourth time running.

It demonstrated that Essex man - and woman - the epitomy of the populist working-class voter enlisted to the Tory cause by Baroness Thatcher, was still backing the Government. But Mr Major can no longer rely on this crucial sector of the electorate.

Mr Buckley, 45, an estate agent, tried to sound upbeat yesterday when he pointed out that last year Basildon Conservatives lost every ward, including his own which went to the Liberal Democrats by four votes. But he admitted that voters had told him that all the political parties, including the Conservatives, lacked any kind of broad vision.

He believes that to start winning back seats in Basildon the Conservatives have to stop squabbling, tell voters that there is more that unites them under the Tory banner than divides them and hammer home the message that Britain is doing better economically than other European countries.

"In terms of public relations the Conservative Party as an organisation has an appalling record," he said. "The Labour Party has rung rings around us for a couple of years and I certainly think that Brian Mawhinney, the party chairman, has got to take that in hand."

Like many grass-roots Conservatives he has watched with dismay as the party has fought publicly over European policy. "We should concentrate on areas of European policy where there is agreement and on the positive aspects, resolve our differences in private and present a publicly united front," he said.

"The other thing we have to do is to bring to the electorate's attention just how how unreliable the opposition are. If Labour came to power I don't think that we will see the Tony Blair version of the Labour Party, we will see the John Prescott and Robin Cook version."

Conservatives in Basildon still regard Lady Thatcher as the leader they should never have lost but have reluctantly accepted Mr Major as her successor. They believe that he now has to demonstrate her political gut instincts when faced with a crisis.

"I don't think we have any choice about John Major leading us into the next general election," Mr Buckley said.

"I expect him to get back on his soap box and deliver the goods by sticking to good, basic Conservative beliefs."

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