Election '97: Waiting for the silent Tories of Tatton

JoJo Moyes encounters David Soul - the karaoke canvasser
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Life as a campaign reporter prepares you for all kinds of human experience - but not for finding yourself at a community centre in the middle of Cheshire being serenaded on a karaoke machine by the former star of Starsky and Hutch, David Soul.

As the rest of the nation wearily winds up its electioneering, in the Tatton constituency events take an ever more surreal turn.

Mr Soul spent yesterday canvassing in Wilmslow and Handforth to offer a hand to his old friend, Martin Bell.

In this case, it meant a quick rendition of Don't Give Up On Us Baby for visitors to the Knutsford Drop-In Centre on one of the area's less affluent housing estates.

Your reporter had made the mistake of privately confessing to having a crush, at the age 7, on the London-based American actor. The elderly ladies of Tatton are not so slow in expressing themselves.

"Ooh! Aren't you lovely!" said Veronica Evans, 68, bestowing a kiss before telling Mr Bell: "I've got your poster and everything in my window".

"Have I missed David Soul?" said a disconsolate woman arriving at campaign headquarters later. Mr Bell appears to be almost as popular.

Residents on the estates are evidently unused to being visited by politicians - or TV cops, for that matter - but the campaign, by now slickly organised, is headed by a loudhailer notifying them of the candidate's arrival. It brings a few to their doorstep, and many to shake his hand.

"I have the advantage of having been in their front rooms for 35 years," says Mr Bell. "They already know me."

They know Mr Soul from repeats on TV's Bravo channel. "Our lives as citizens are wonderfully kaleidoscopic," he said, and is apparently not surprised to find himself knocking on doors in Cheshire. "The grass roots movement was a dying breed ... it's a renewal of the spirit to be involved in this," he says, signing another autograph.

Spend time canvassing with either of the candidates and the difference in mood and modus operandi are stark. Bell, who suffered from accusations of amateurism three weeks ago, is now ferried and heralded with an efficiency the Blair Bus would envy. A handful of helpers nicknamed 'The beautiful people' confidently knock on doors, preparing householders for his brief stops. Bell posters are everywhere and he now introduces and expresses himself with a politician's careful charm.

Mr Hamilton's canvassing yesterday, in contrast, was a less merry affair.

Out in the centre of Wilmslow, accompanied by his ever-present wife, constituency chairman Alan Barnes and several helpers, Mr Hamilton began to look like a desperate man, disproportionately grateful for kind words, at one stage bounding up to a friendly face like a puppy.

Christine Hamilton, meanwhile, brings people to him, explaining in hushed tones how the press have been so awful - "such lies" she mutters, "such lies" - while their audience look bored, apparently happy to concur. When people promise their vote, she has taken to kissing them.

"It's always the grumpy ones who are against us," she observes, after one unhappy exchange, then when a van pulls to a halt in front of them and the driver yells "money, money!" she smiles as fiercely as ever. Neil remarks: "Isn't democracy wonderful."

Mr Hamilton tries hard to be bullish, despite the fact that not a single recent poll has put him ahead of his rival: "It's all going very well. I can't reconcile the poll results with our canvassing returns," he said.

"Even taking into account the reservations of some constituents, there is a lot of support. There is a large undecided factor which we can't get the measure of."

In this, Mr Hamilton is correct. He says that he expects Mr Bell to take the majority of the Labour and Liberal Democrat vote, which would take him to roughly half the 36,000 votes Mr Hamilton could traditionally expect, taking account of boundary changes.

But many Conservatives are tired of Mr Hamilton and the associations with sleaze. One prominent local Conservative Association member has a prominent display of brown envelopes in his shop window.

Mr Hamilton said yesterday he had "not been able" to canvass them in the way he had wanted. But much local Tory campaigning is said to be going on behind closed doors.

In the end, both he and Mr Bell admit that it will be Tatton's "silent Tories" who decide this election - those who stay behind their trimmed privet hedges and register their disgust or desire for status quo on paper.

Anywhere else, an attempt to overturn such a sizeable majority - the fourth safest in the country - would be considered little short of madness.

But there are few here who believe it will not be a very close thing. And 24 hours before polling day, one cannot help but feel that Mr Bell might do it.