Election '97 : The Teesside Tory playing for keeps

Michael Streeter reports from a Tory enclave in Labour's target territory
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Tim Devlin is mildly displeased. A local bookmaker has just made him the narrow favourite to hold on to his marginal seat of Stockton South, a rare Tory foothold in the North-east.

"I think I prefer it when people are doing me down as the underdog," explained Mr Devlin, busy door-knocking in a key ward. But it is not unexpected. "I suppose I have a track record for surprising results."

Clinging on to his majority of 3,369 would certainly be surprising. The Teesside constituency is one of 90 "must win" seats for Labour, and at 64th on the list and according to form and party analysis, a win here would give Tony Blair's party a small overall majority.

Mr Devlin, whose narrow trend-bucking ousting of the Social Democrats' Ian Wrigglesworth in 1987 made him the youngest Tory MP at 27, is undaunted. Cheerily shaking the hand of each voter who crossed his path, the former barrister seemed remarkably relaxed about being written off as a Tory loss as he shepherded his canvassing team around the houses. "We have heard it all before and we have fought back."

His campaign themes are notably local issues, He claims that even Labour voters regard him as an approachable MP and points to his encouragement of the use of closed-circuit television and "zero tolerance" policing which has cut crime in the area.

Traditional Labour voters, he believes, are unhappy with Mr Blair's new Labour and he thinks their abstentions could help him win. With his wife, Carol, he gleefully recalls the reaction of Labour voters on the doorstep. "One person said, 'I've been waiting 18 years to get rid of you effing bs, now I find the other effing bs are just the same'."

Much of the chat in the crowded terrace house that is the election headquarters is light-hearted and domestic - of their two dogs and the lambs on their six-acre smallholding. The property fits well with the southern part of the constituency where pretty towns such as Yarm show signs of considerable wealth. In contrast, some areas of the decaying industrial Stockton suffer male unemployment of up to 30 per cent and massive depravation.

So far his campaign against Labour's Dari Taylor has been relatively civil, though he informed The Independent that Ms Taylor had been "parachuted" in by her party, and had been given a new Labour "makeover". He declared: "She has a new hairdo and wears suits."

His own career is not without criticism. In 1994 he was removed as a ministerial aide, claiming that he left because of local defence cuts. Whips said he was sacked for "general ineffectiveness", although a year later he was given a similar post.

Ms Taylor dismisses the personal criticism of her as "silly" but recognises that she has a real fight ahead to take the seat. She accepts that many of the undecided voters - around 25 per cent of the electorate - will fall back to the Tories, but she is confident that enough will switch or stay at home to give her the 3.9 per cent swing she needs to win. "There is everything to play for and this is a critical seat. All eyes will be on us [at the election]."

The daughter of the former Labour MP for Burnley, Daniel Jones, Welsh- born Ms Taylor - whose campaign is sponsored by the GMB general workers' union - detects a mood of anticipation in the seat. But she concedes that trust in all politicians to carry out their promises is low. "People won't change, I know that. We are going to have to prove that they can trust us. Winning the election is going to be the easy part."

Already she feels that she has Mr Devlin on the run over schools' funding and a controversial plan to build a watersports centre on a tranquil spot on the Tees, to which Mr Devlin appeared to give initial backing.

The Liberal Democrats also believe they see signs of movement to them by both disenchanted Tories and "betrayed" Labour supporters. However most observers believe their candidate, Peter Monck, who works for a funeral company, will do well to maintain their 1992 vote of less than 10,000.