Election '97: Around the regions: High ground holds key as reds aim to take the blue citadels

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The Independent Online
"I'm giving them five years to turn the country around. I have always voted Tory, but not any more. Labour can't do any worse, so we might as well give them a chance. Tony Blair has got his priorities right," said Carole Shewring.

Mrs Shewring, 41, works as an assistant in a special school, has two children and her husband was a military police officer for 22 years. This is significant, because RAF Cosford is one of the few centres of population in her constituency, Wrekin. This new seat is named after a hill rather than a town as it does not boast a settlement larger than the Wolverhampton commuter villages of Shifnal and Albrighton.

Mrs Shewring is one of many "switchers" Labour canvassers need to overturn the new seat's notional Conservative majority of more than 7,000.

Across the traditionally blue hills of Shropshire, Labour cannot hope to wrestle Ludlow away from Christopher Gill, one of the Euro-sceptic rebels - not even with the help of Julian Critchley, the disillusioned pro-European Tory MP who is retiring there. Nor can they dare hope for Derek Conway's constituency of Shrewsbury and Atcham, although the swing required, 10 per cent, is well within what the opinion polls suggest.

So the real battleground in Shropshire is Wrekin, which has been split from the new town of Telford, and which needs an 8 per cent swing. Until recently it was right at the end of the list of Labour targets. It seems unlikely that Labour could even have a chance in an area of small market towns and rural villages, not to mention four grant-maintained and two grammar schools.

But perhaps Mrs Shewring is typical of a horde of Tories who are changing their allegiance. Peter Bradley, the Labour candidate, is so enthused by the reaction he gets that he sails close to breaking Tony Blair's injunction against complacency. "The reception I have had has been fantastic. Of course, we were campaigning at 100mph less than five minutes after John Major left Buckingham Palace to call the election."

This does not seem to worry Peter Bruinvels, the Conservative candidate and former MP for Leicester East, whose campaign only recently got into gear after his formal adoption on Monday - although he has been the prospective candidate since last year. Like Mr Bradley, a Westminster Labour councillor, he is an outsider to the area, a part-time Ofsted inspector since losing his job in 1992. During his time in Parliament in the early Eighties, he was well known as a maverick right-winger, who once volunteered to be a public hangman.

He said: "The Wrekin is not a marginal seat, it is a safe seat. This constituency fits me like a glove and it is a very long shot for Labour."

Jeff Parkinson, a butcher who has lived in the constituency for 35 years, has voted for the Tories all his life and intends to stick with them. "There have been times when I have moaned at the government - but it's not enough to make me change my mind. At least you know where you are with the Conservative party. I would rather go with the devil I know than the devil I don't."

But if Mr Bradley's doorstep campaign continues at 100mph, Mr Bruinvels may find his glove a tight fit on 1 May.