Election '97: Water of life keeps Clarke's spirits up in the hills

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The Independent Online
In an attempt to stave off what looks like a Tory defeat in a highly marginal constituency, Kenneth Clarke yesterday put on one side his taste for a pint - usually accompanied by a small cigar - and downed a tot of Welsh whisky.

The Chancellor was visiting a distillery near Brecon in the heart of one of those tight three-way contests in an area where "independent" councillors are almost as thick on the ground as bitter-drinkers at closing time.

Jonathan Evans, something of a wet and, like Mr Clarke, keen on Europe, is defending a majority of 130.

The local office of bookmakers William Hill, thoughtfully located next to a wine merchant, and a stone's throw from the former launderette which has been pressed into service as a Tory office, quoted Mr Evans at 3-1 with Labour's Chris Mann favourite at 11-10 and the Liberal Democrats' Richard Livesey at 5-4.

Early in the day, the Chancellor lent a helping hand to Walter Sweeney who has the daunting task in the Vale of Glamorgan of defending a majority of 19, Britain's most marginal seat, Mr Clarke's visit to Welsh Distillers, was relaxed, even marginally convivial.

He padded round the distillery - he was wearing his trade mark suede Hush Puppies - and then settled down in a chapel-like room to watch an audio-visual history of Welsh whisky. It was narrated by a lifelike plastic monk representing the recluse who, it is said, first produced chwisgi, the Celtic name for the fortifying spirit in AD356.

Then it was off to a splendid display of bottles and whisky nick-nacks - Biros and cork-screws bearing the company logo. A tape of "We'll Keep A Welcome in the Hillsides" played softly. All that was missing was Celtic, rather than Scotch, mist. The talk became serious. "I'm not allowed to take a bottle into the chamber on budget day. My PPS pours a glass for me," Mr Clarke explained.

He spoke up for Britain speaking up in the European Union. "We are serious about resisting things like the Social Chapter. The Labour Party's policy on Europe is anyone's guess," he said. Attempts to autograph bottles of chwisgi were frustrated because the labels rejected most of the pens proferred by Mr Clarke's entourage. An omen, perhaps, for 1 May.

There is a political twist in the story. Distillation of chwisgi was begun in the mid-Wales town 23 years ago by Dafydd Gittins, who contested Brecon and Radnor in both the 1974 elections under the Plaid Cymru banner. He now intends to vote Tory.