Dover rallies against French invasion threat

Government sell-off plans could see the tricolour flying over Kent's white cliffs. James Cusick reports

It is a moment for which the people of Calais have waited more than 400 years, since their port was last under English rule.

Now the port of Dover faces being bought up by Calais, its Channel counterpart, creating a conflict which may well become known as Le Stink.

That a corner of England might turn French overnight is due to the Government's imminent privatisation plans, which could mean the port of Dover will be put on the open market. Growing expectation that Calais is the most likely buyer has united the Kent town against the sell-off.

Calais was last under English rule between 1347 and 1558, and its loss caused Mary Tudor to pledge that the word Calais would be found carved upon her heart.

Yesterday, passions were running high again. Before the Sun newspaper had time to rewrite its famous "Hop off, you Frogs" headline, two Labour MPs were gathering petition signatures in the town centre and handing out leaflets.

"Napolean (sic) couldn't capture it," pronounced a Labour leaflet. If any opposition had been around, they could have said in their own leaflet: "Labour can't spell Napoleon."

However, there is little opposition to those who want Dover to retain the trust status it has enjoyed since 1606.

"Hitler couldn't destroy it," said another Labour leaflet headline. Before there was time to mention King John in Dover kneeling before Pandulf to surrender England to Pope Innocent III, a Labour messenger arrived with startling news: "Dame Vera's on board, isn't that wonderful!"

Dame Vera Lynn, whose solo battle charge had John Major running scared over his D-Day party plans, may now be the crucial combatant in the dark days of the privatisation battle.

Dover's mayor and the speaker of the ancient Cinque Ports (of which Dover is one) has already resorted to heavy artillery in his opening volleys. The Queen Mother, in her capacity as Warden of the Cinque Ports, has been contacted. "You will know," wrote George Hood, the mayor, in his letter to Clarence House, "of the long and illustrious history of the port of Dover both in defence of the realm and in providing passage to the continent".

He said yesterday: "We are hoping for a positive response from Her Majesty because as you know she is the Lord Warden and Admiral of the Cinque Ports and Constable of Dover Castle."

It was a busy day for Mr Hood. After fielding inquiries from the local press, he found himself in demand from BBC South East and ITN, and then the French media in the prestigious form of Le Monde .

Did he comment on Le Stink? "No. As a politician all I can say is that I have known the mayor of Calais, Monsieur Jean Bartre for 20 years. And I can understand why they would want to buy Dover to safeguard their own business."

Mr Hood said Calais depended on tourism for 70 per cent of its income. "They live off the strength of their port."

Back in the high street, the Labour team was working hard. Mark Watts, MEP for Kent East, said Labour was united in its opposition to the proposal. Rotterdam, Antwerp and Zeebrugge all remained committed to public ownership, he said. It was therefore unthinkable that Dover should be privatised.

Meanwhile in the town's pubs there was much talk of Winston Churchill, little talk of La Manche, and plenty of talk of Le Stink.

The French are coming...

n The French water company Lyonnaise des Eaux wants to buy Northumbrian Water. It already owns North East Water and the BMI chain of British private hospitals.

n Lyonnaise des Eaux also has a big holding in General Cable, one of the top five cable companies in Britain.

n The transport subsidiary of Compagnie General des Eaux is tipped to take a large stake in South West Trains.

n Onyx, a refuse collection service also owned by Compagnie General des Eaux, won a contract with Brent council in London in 1992.

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