Politics: Major boosts Malone's circus act

Gerry Malone's circus came to Winchester in a big way yesterday with John Major giving his support. Onlookers might have imagined the former health minister had tomorrow's by-election in the bag. But the picture is not quite so clear, says Fran Abrams.

11.15am and the chocolate brownies are circulating as neatly coiffeured ladies smooth their already flawless attire. In their midst stands Gerry Malone, a former Tory health minister, dressed in corduroys, a blue sweater and a pair of green wellies. This is life on "the knocker" Hampshire-style.

Mr Malone - declared loser by two votes on 1 May only to overturn the verdict in court - has turned down a biscuit, as he is on a diet. So far there has been little sign of sceptical questioning or hard-edged debate despite an earlier "hit" on a mobile home park populated by elderly voters of a mainly blue-rinse hue.

Barry Nicholson, the Swanmore branch treasurer in whose house the biscuits are being served, believes Mr Malone can win. But he admits the campaign has been hit by claims, in his view unjustified, that the Liberal Democrat candidate, Mark Oaten, will be more visible locally.

Mr Malone agrees the issue is a major one. "You can go off and be a dustman for a day, but you don't have to be an MP to do it," he says, referring to a recent publicity stunt by his rival.

Back out into the rain, and some real canvassing seems to be on the menu. But the first stop is at the home of some Tory supporters who listen intently while their candidate explains that the electorate has now flaked their desire to give the Tories a kicking.

Off down the road again, the rest of the party is forced to break into an intermittent trot. "Come on! crack on!"Mr Malone cries, and crack on he does. A couple of handshakes with shopkeepers then off into a private housing estate at a gallop.

Finally, a challenge: How will Gerry vote on the age of homosexual consent? An easy one, this - around here there are not too many gay rights campaigners - and he fields it easily to receive the promise of a vote. Within minutes, he is disappearing down the road in his battle-bus for his meeting with Mr Major.

The former Prime Minister, hot foot from the Beckenham by-election, also tomorrow, lunches with the candidate before a walk-about in the city centre. Here, the party's youth are waiting in sweatshirts which say: "Winchester needs Gerry back." Given Mr Malone's statement in this week's Hampshire Chronicle that he "did not need to surround myself with mincers and spin doctors" their presence is all more remarkable.

Half way up the high street stand a man and a woman plastered in Liberal Democrat stickers, bearing a poster which reads: "Tory betrayal of Lloyds names". Tony Hockley, Mr Malone's press officer, throws himself in front of them along with a hoard of sweatshirts, screaming: "Gerry back! Gerry back! No more silent Liberals."

Mr Malone and Mr Major pass by on the other side of the road. For a man with a reputation as a political bruiser, the candidate has done a sterling job of avoiding his detractors.

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