Budget Special: Mondeo man puts low-rev Chancellor in slow lane

AFTERMATH: VIEW FROM THE STREET: The word from `The Independent' panel of voters in Middle England does not look bright.
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Last month The Independent reported the views of a group of Middle- England voters from Redditch; the kind of people whose support will be crucial for any party hoping to win the general election. They were dubbed Sierra, Mondeo or Montego person after Tony Blair's recent declaration that it was his meeting with a Midlands Ford Sierra owner at the last election that convinced him Labour was no longer the party of the aspirational classes.

When we first spoke to the group - who were almost all Conservative voters at the last election - there was a general air of dismay and some anger at the Government's performance. But equally there were signs of mistrust towards New Labour and Tony Blair.

Yesterday's Budget was one of the few remaining opportunities for the Government to make a real impact on the nation's fortunes before it goes to the polls. Here is our group's verdict on the Chancellor's critical performance. Much of it will make gloomy reading for Conservative Central Office.

Lionel Baird, 52, is a paramedic, and one of the many "unhappy Tories". He was looking for more commitments on education and in particular health - the area in which he works. Mr Clarke's announcements left him cold. "The increase in health spending is welcome but really it's just a drop in the ocean.

"The one penny off income tax will not make that much difference to me, perhaps just pounds 4 or pounds 5 a week, and I think I would rather have had to pay an extra penny as long as it was paid for something worthwhile. "

Mr Baird , married with three children, said he welcomed the increase in the threshold on inheritance tax to pounds 215,000 as a step in the right direction. But overall his reaction was that it was a "neutral" Budget. "It has certainly not convinced me about voting for the Conservatives again, they need to do a lot more. I'm still thinking about Labour."

Steven Marriott, 28, is a radio frequency engineer. His immediate reaction to Ken Clarke's speech was one of dismay. "I think it's a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. They seem to be taking off on the one hand then banging it on somewhere else." He was unimpressed by the penny off tax, and annoyed at the indirect tax rises on cars and fuel. "To be honest this does not make me like the Tories any more." However, he is still unsure of which way to vote.

Andrew Osciak, 45, a toolmaker, was unimpressed. The penny cut in direct tax would only benefit him by about pounds 30 a year, offset by the rises in road and petrol taxes.

He contrasted the rise in road and petrol taxes with the deteriorating state of roads in the Midlands. He welcomed the extra money on law and order but added that there was no mention of the key issues affecting his region - job insecurity and low wages.

The Budget, he said, left him unconvinced by the Conservatives but he was so far no more persuaded by Labour.

Mark Redfern, 29, an engineer, was "disgusted". He was particularly incensed by the erosion of tax relief on Profit Related Pay, which he has been earning for five years. "That will cost me about pounds 6 a week, and I'm supposed to claw that back elsewhere." He was also gloomy over the rise in tax on insurance premiums, airport tax - "that would have put pounds 30 extra on my holiday this year" and petrol and car tax,"especially when you consider the state of the roads around here". As for the rise in the threshold for inheritance tax, "that's just for the rich".

A former Tory voter, he said:"I'm definitely not voting Conservative again - they give with one hand and take with the other. I will go for Labour."

David Bignall, 51, is a former British Telecom engineer who is medically retired. He calls himself a "disgruntled" Tory. Yesterday he welcomed the extra spending on health, education and law and order but criticised the hike in car and petrol taxes. "Overall I think it will cost me a bit more. I don't think it would make me more inclined to vote for the Conservatives or against them, it's pretty neutral."

Craig Coates, 37, and a father of three, earns pounds 20,000 a year as a clerk of works. He describes himself as an ex-Tory but was not sure that he would vote Labour. Now, after the Budget, he says he is "turning more towards Labour". He said the 1p cut in basic tax was irrelevant and pointless at a time when basic services were suffering. "I would not mind paying a few more pence on tax if it went to health and education. The health service has gone to pot.

"This is not a vote-winning Budget, quite the reverse.I definitely won't vote Tory now." He said the pounds 370 a year Mr Clarke said average families would benefit by was "trifling" compared to what needed to be spent on more important things.

Roger Frost, 54, a former Conservative voter, used to work as a British Gas travel manager, but took early retirement. He was looking for a "more adventurous" package, with larger reductions in direct tax. "As it is, for me it's a neutral Budget or even worse - I may be worse off." He highlighted the increases in airport, petrol and road taxes which would cost him more, and as a non-drinker he does not benefit from the cut on spirit duties. "As for the penny off on income tax, with all the other taxes going up it will hardly be worth it. I think it is a poor Budget and has not changed my mind at all - it's time for a change."

Susan Lovett, 38, a former sales consultant and now housewife, broadly welcomed what she called a "careful" Budget. "He hasn't taken much away and he hasn't given much out. I think it has good economics behind it, and I don't think he had much room for manoeuvre." She welcomed more spending on the police, and health and education, but felt that the penny off income tax was hardly significant. "I think I will still vote Conservative, though I will be interested to see what Labour have to say - so far there's no evidence that they would do much different."

Alan Tomes, 35, a cold store operator, earns about pounds 12,000 a year. He was encouraged by more spending on vital services but, like many of the group, was unhappy at the rise in road and petrol tax. "That could wipe out the rise I get from the cut in income tax." As a shareholder he welcomes the move towards lower direct taxation but says that overall, the Budget will not be a major factor when it comes to voting.

Denise Sparkes, 35, a mother of two, works as a dressmaker and in a supermarket. She voted Tory last time and is now unsure, though she would "probably" vote Tory again. She welcomed the increases on health and education but said: "That's what I expected with the election coming, to make them look good. I think that's the kind of thing that most of the British public want." She thought the income tax cut would make a marginal improvement, especially for her husband, but attacked the pounds 5 rise in road tax: "That seems to go go up every Budget." Overall she thought it would make little difference to how she votes. "I will read what they have to say at the election."

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