Miserable Tories have no other medicine but hope

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To win or not to win, that is no longer the question for the Tories of Stratford-on-Avon. Having seen their "natural Tory seat" slip gradually into the hands of the Liberal Democrats, and watched their MP, Alan Howarth, switch from true blue to new red, next week's local elections is not a battle the Tories of south Warwickshire are relishing.

"Men shut their doors against a setting sun," wrote the town's famous playwright. Down to only 19 of the district's 55-seat council, and holding 11 of the 18 wards up for election next week, Tory canvassers have not had an easy job convincing Stratford their sun can rise again.

Stratford is a "no overall control" council. However the 24 Liberal Democrats and the nine independents effectively run this prosperous, predominantly rural, district. Four more seats for the Liberal Democrats will give them overall control for the first time.

Last year more than 2.5 million tourists "from the four corners of the world" flooded into Shakespeare's town. Tourism was last year worth pounds 100m. The income from the numerous "Shakespearean" tearooms alone would probably be the envy of some Third World chancellors. Only the headquarters of the Rover car group at Gaydon challenges tourism as a wealth generator.

Stretching from Moreton-in-Marsh in the south, bounded by the M42 in the north-west and stretching almost to Daventry in the east, the district is dominated by Stratford. The town generates wealth, but, says the Conservative group leader, Ruth Styles, it takes a high percentage of the budget.

Mrs Styles, who retires next week after 18 years as a councillor, has watched her party's fortunes rise and then decline. She hesitates in trying to explain why, but says: "It all stems from the town of Stratford itself. It has so much money, it scarcely knows what to do with it." Kenneth Clarke should be so lucky.

Mrs Styles said Stratford was unusual in that the town council was the major landlord, which meant it did not need to raise additional revenue from residents.

Fairer distribution of the district's resources will be one issue under consideration next week. But the cut and thrust of party politics, policies, personalities and philosophies seems strangely absent. Until the mid-1970s, Stratford was "independent". It was discreetly blue, but never true blue. But as local government enmeshed itself in the identity of the national parties, the Tories took control.

The current council leader, Liberal Democrat Jean Holder, is similarly not too sure why party fortunes have changed. She delivers a lengthy list in explanation: "We are approachable, willing to talk, look at what people want, we form partnerships, we listen, we are not secret."

She could have been describing the Samaritans, yet the recipe has worked. Alan Howarth's defection was a disappointment, but Mrs Holder is philosophical: "I'm not sure where Alan's natural home is. I thought he was a staunch Tory who had worked for change from the inside. But I was wrong."

Before the polls even open one of the existing Tories, Roger Wright in the Wellingbourne Ward, has already left the party whip and is standing as an independent. In recent elections Liberal Democrats have been unopposed in four wards.

Geraint Morgan's Labour group of three councillors, admits the area "is not natural Labour". But he has an explanation for the change in controlling parties. "The Liberal Democrats here are illusionists. You can't tell the difference between them and the Tories. So they appeal to the disillusioned Tory voters."

Doubling their seats to six would be a small triumph for Labour. And triumph for the Tories? As the Bard of Avon wrote:"The miserable have no other medicine, But only hope."

Stratford council

Current council: no overall control.

Liberal Democrats 24

Conservatives 19

Independents 9

Labour 3

18 seats are up for re-election.