Howard's local appointment raises fears on the home front

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The Independent Online

* As Michael Howard's supporters prepare for next week's conference in Bournemouth, there are growing fears about the Tory leader's electoral prospects in his own backyard.

* As Michael Howard's supporters prepare for next week's conference in Bournemouth, there are growing fears about the Tory leader's electoral prospects in his own backyard.

The latest Conservative party bulletin, sent to all senior activists, has fallen into Pandora's hands, and reveals that serious changes are being made in Howard's own seat of Folkestone and Hythe, where he has a majority of 6,000 over the Lib Dems.

One Christine Bedier is being bought in as Area Campaign Director for Kent, and according to the bulletin, will be based at a new "special campaigning centre," which is to be set up in Folkestone.

Bedier is said to be a safe pair of hands. But local sources say that her arrival, coupled with the fact that the centre is being set up, "only adds to a sense of slight panic."

Although party leaders perform well in General Elections, Folkestone is high on the Lib Dems' list of target seats, and if Labour (who get nearly 10,000 votes) were to decide against putting up a candidate, Howard would be deep in the doo-doo.

However, his agent, Bob Davidson, says concerns are misplaced. "The campaign centre will cover the whole region, and isn't just something to help in this one seat," he said. "As for Christine, she's been bought in as part of a number of changes nationally."

* DESPITE RUMOURS to the contrary, Sophie Dahl's mother Tessa says there is nothing sinister about the supermodel's dramatic weight loss.

Speaking for the first time about the matter, Dahl (snr) tells me that her daughter's only recent health problems have been due to an illness contracted in India.

"I speak to Sophie every day," she says. "She called me from India, where she was filming The King of Bollywood , and said she wasn't very well. I mean, for goodness sake, everyone gets ill in India. So I knew she was going to come back looking a bit thin."

Apopros the supermodel's current activities, Dahl - speaking at the launch of David Hemmings' posthumous memoir, Blow Up and Other Exaggerations - says she's now in Brazil. "She's on a modelling assignment but she hates it there. She'll be back in New York soon, and who knows, she might even put on some weight."

* MINNIE DRIVER - an elegant lady, who has an appetite for adventure - recently agreed to compete in the Wanadoo Bullrun, a five-day motor rally from London to Ibiza. On Thursday, she turned up at the starting grid and, to the horror of organisers, decided to do a runner.

"Minnie went down to the Met Bar along with the other participants," I'm told. "She plonked her luggage down, looked around for a bit, clearly didn't like what she saw and scarpered."

The organisers had laid on a luxury sports car and full motor-racing kit for the Hollywood star, and are somewhat put out. "I think it was just a case of other commitments. On the day," they say.

* IAN RANKIN'S claim - reported here yesterday - to have been "sounded out" to help with Sean Connery's autobiography came at a pertinent time. For I gather that only last week, the Beatles' biographer, Hunter Davies, signed a beefy contract to ghostwrite the book.

"I understand that Ian Rankin was in the frame, as were a couple of other Scottish writers, but I've now got the job," he tells me. "Yesterday, a Fed Ex van arrived at my house in the middle of the Lake District, and a little man jumped out with my first cheque."

* Alun Michael is high on the country sports lobby's "hit list" of hate figures. So it's odd to report that he was invited to the British Association for Shooting and Conservation's fringe meeting at Brighton on Monday.

"I'm about to send back my membership card, as are several of my friends," fumes one BASC member. "That weasel Michael is the last man we ought to be breaking bread with. The Countryside Alliance will be livid."

Over to the Association: "A lot of people are saying that we had a big champagne reception for him. That's not true. He was invited to speak at our fringe meeting, in his capacity as the minister for Rural Affairs. We disagree strongly with Michael on the hunting issue, but we can't simply stop co-operating because of that."