Election '97: Chelsea's charmer bides his time for the canter to victory keeps his touch and the seat is secure

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Alan Clark was at a pensioners' forum in his new constituency of Kensington and Chelsea. He began his address: "I have in front of me a brilliant new pension plan which in 20 years ..." A voice at the back cut in, "we will all be dead, try again".

A few minutes later, he did. Some of those present were experiencing difficulties with rising rents. One asked if Clark was aware of the problem in the area between landlords and tenants. The custodian of the 14th Century Saltwood Castle and its rolling acres responded: "Yes, I understand landlords have a lot of problems ... "

It is a mark of the celebrated old diarist and roue's continuing charm that most of the audience at Kensington town hall did not think too badly of him. One elderly woman said: "Ah well, he is new around here, and he means well. He will know more about local issues when he gets to know the area better."

Some say Mr Clark is taking his time doing that. He is not exactly stomping the streets in the run up to the election, or attending too many meetings. He took off to Scotland over Easter, and his next public walkabout? "Well it could be next Wednesday, or perhaps the Wednesday after that," said Barbara Lord, his agent.

Yesterday, he was apparently concentrating on his evening adoption meeting at Chelsea town hall - from Saltwood, in Kent. He has not bothered overmuch with the local papers either, sending all three of them copies of the one letter.

It could all, of course, be a misunderstanding - like his standing up to the military top brass at lunchtime on Tuesday. Or perhaps if one has inherited one of the safest Tory seats in the country, there is no need to try too hard.

Kensington and Chelsea is true blue through and through. The new constituency was created by merging Sir Nicholas Scott's Chelsea with Dudley Fishburn's Kensington. Most of the Labour wards were hived off to a neighbouring constituency.

Mr Clark's notional majority on the new boundaries is 21, 899. Labour would need a swing of 26 per cent to win. Although a recent London Evening Standard poll for the capital put Labour 32 points ahead, even the most diehard Opposition activist would acknowledge that this is one Tory fortress which will not be breached.

On Sunday, Mr Clark will be 69 years old. His predecessor, Sir Nicholas Scott, who fell from grace after falling down in the street following a party, was five years younger. The wounds caused during that lingering political death and the subsequent fight for succession still have not fully healed. Mrs Lord, who used to be Sir Nicholas's agent said: "It was a terrible time and it did the party an awful lot of harm. I think a lot of people behaved very hypocritically towards Nick Scott."

Asked about Mr Clark, Mrs Lord says all the right public, supportive things (with the proviso "don't forget I have to keep my job at the end of this") and adds: "Even if people were surprised that Mr Clark came for this seat, the result proves he was right. Of course he will win, even if there is a large swing nationally against the party, we cannot lose this."

Mr Clark described his last Conservative association, Plymouth Sutton, as " boring, petty, malign, clumsy, consp- iratorial, and parochial". He has made no secret of his antipathy for constituency work.

At his selection meeting for Kensington and Chelsea he said, according to someone who was present: "If you choose me I shall be grateful to you for the rest of my life."

Now he says: "I am not taking anything for granted, I shall fight hard for people here. People are so nice to me. They cross the road and wind their windows down in traffic jams. I am extremely fortunate to have been chosen."

Robert Atkinson, 43, who is the Labour candidate and leader of the Opposition in the council said: "The more Alan Clark opens his mouth, the more votes I shall get. I could not believe what he said at that pensioners' meeting about rents and landlords.

"I have been challenging him for debates in public meetings, but he kept on trying to duck out. At one stage he said he would debate with me when Blair debates Major. I could only respond by making the chicken noise. Now he has agreed to a debate, but says he cannot find the time in his diary. I don't know what he does with his time, his own people don't seem to know. He certainly does not spend it around here."

At World's End, next to one of the very few Labour enclaves in the borough, Tony Smithers, who says he is "old Labour" said: "This is a selfish area, and Alan Clark should get on very well here. Have I seen him? I think you have more chance of seeing Lord Lucan riding Shergar down the King's Road than seeing him here."