Fear abroad in Major `homeland'

The PM has Britain's biggest Conservative majority, but even in Huntingdon his party may be vulnerable.
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The Independent Online
The conspiratorial-looking outline figure chosen as the logo of one of the last bastions of Conservative local government power in England is ironically that of Oliver Cromwell.

The Parliamentary leader who won the English Civil War and temporarily brought down the monarchy was born and educated in Huntingdon.

Today, the area is John Major's constituency and has the biggest Conservative majority in the country, more than 36,000.

Huntingdonshire is one of just four district councils in England still run by the Conservatives and it is a measure of how low the party's fortunes have sunk that its loss is even being discussed.

The district is the fastest growing area of England with a population which has expanded from 97,000 in 1971 to 150,000 today. Its traditional agricultural base is still there, but many new light industries have arrived.

It is prosperous and is likely to become more so as its good road communications attract investment. If the electorate here has not got the feelgood factor then the Tories are doomed.

The result of the local election on 2 May will depend on a handful of votes in just two or three wards.

Should they fall, then so will this greatest of Tory bastions and Mr Major himself may come under pressure to stand down before the general election.

The possibility of defeat is not something that Richard Turpin, Conservative leader of Huntingdonshire council is prepared to contemplate although he admits that he may be his party's only district council leader after 2 May. "I can stand being the only one for a year because our fortunes will get better and I should not be isolated for very long", said Wing Cdr Turpin, a retired RAF officer.

He believes that the Conservatives who are defending 13 of the 19 seats up for election this year can shrug off national unpopularity because of their local record.

"What we are arguing, and I think successfully, is that we have kept the increase in the district share of the council tax to within inflation, around 3 per cent, and we are improving services," he said.

Wing Cdr Turpin, whose ward includes the Majors' constituency home, also believes that the Prime Minister's record as the local MP will help the Tories. The ward is not among the one-third of council seats up for election this year.

The main threat to the Conservatives who have 31 seats comes from the Liberal Democrats who have 12.

While the former are strongest in the rural north of the district, the latter have turned the town of St Neots in the south into a stronghold.

Although their assault on the Conservatives is complicated by a breakaway party faction which is putting up three candidates, the Liberal Democrats believe they can take three or four seats from the Tories, plus the only one held by the splinter group. Percy Meyer, the Liberal Democrats local chairman and a councillor, said: "Depriving the Tories of control is achievable, the time is right.

"Never have the Conservatives been in such disarray."

To do this they will need Labour, which has seven seats and is strongest in Huntingdon town, to do well.

Robert Lomax, the Labour leader, is hoping for at least one gain.

If the two opposition parties capture their immediate target seats, the Conservatives will be left dependent on two independent councillors.

But if the rural areas revolt and provide some shock Liberal Democrat victories they and Labour will have to decide whether they can run the council jointly.

For Mr Lomax, who has spent 35 years in local politics in Huntingdon, it would be the greatest triumph of his life.

It would be a moment which might also have brought a smile to the face of Oliver Cromwell.