Election '97: Old feuds may give Labour a Norfolk seat

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The Independent Online
In 1812 Spencer Perceval was given an unenviable place in the history books when he gained the dubious honour of being the first British prime minister to be assassinated. The man who ensured Mr Perceval's immortality - in print at least - was John Bellingham, a merchant.

Bellingham lay in wait for the British Prime Minister in the corridors of the House of Commons and shot him dead as he walked down for a committee.

Due mainly to imprisonment in Russia, Bellingham had lost his fortune in Europe and had become furious after Perceval had refused to make good his losses.

Nearly two centuries and several generations later, the descendants of the two protagonists are in conflict again.

The battle place and prize for this conflict is the constituency of North West Norfolk with Roger Percival, who despite the different spelling is a descendant of Spencer, flying the flag of the Referendum Party and Henry Bellingham standing under the banner of the Conservative Party.

As it was in 1812, controversy is centred on the subject of Europe. But this time the roles are reversed with Roger Perceval the assassin lurking in the wings ready to strike at an increasingly nervous Henry Bellingham.

Until the emergence of the Referendum Party in North West Norfolk it seemed Bellingham was almost certain to retain his seat which he defends with a 11,864 note majority. Now a high profile Referendum Party campaign, heavily backed by a King's Lynn businessman, has thrown open the contest.

North West Norfolk has become littered with Referendum Party-style notices as shop windows, electricity poles and tree trunks offer the constituents anything from freedom of destiny to a "last chance to remain British."

Former true-blue Conservatives have been able to defect to the Referendum Party safe in the belief they are not having to support, or more importantly abandon, a particular political wing.

In fact this supposedly apolitical political party seems to have roused its support from passions that encapsulate and incorporate a not uncommon mix of right-wing xenophobia and nationalism.

It is this unspoken right-wing perspective that makes the Referendum Party the perfect alternative for loyal Conservatives who want to make a one off protest - for they are not having to protest about their own beliefs but instead about the actions of their fellow believers. This means the Referendum Party's task is simply to preach to the converted and reassure them their beliefs are correct.

There is, of course, a third leading figure who takes his place on the battlefield of North West Norfolk.

This is the quiet figure, until recently, of Labour's Dr George Turner and it is he who could gain the ultimate prize from the assassination of Mr Bellingham's election hopes. Labour needs a 9.5 per cent swing to win. The underlying right-wing nature of the Referendum Party helps to ensure traditional and potential Labour voters are kept in the fold so that the votes lost to the Referendum Party are in the main Conservative.

This ultimately means Mr Percival's assassination attempt on Mr Bellingham combined with the national swing to Tony Blair may unwittingly give Labour the seat. A result few in North West Norfolk would have truly anticipated?