Tories fight for haven in `Archers' country

Young pretender faces heavyweight in `chicken run' to the new safe seat of Mid-Worcestershire. John Rentoul reports
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The Independent Online
In the heart of rural middle England, in Archers country, a fierce battle in the Conservative party reaches its climax at 6 o'clock tonight. Two sitting MPs are slugging it out for one of the new safe Tory constituencies created by the boundary commissioners.

All over the country, similar battles are being fought as the redrawing of seats and impending Labour advance have sent Tory MPs scurrying for safe havens. Gleeful Labour politicians have dubbed it the "chicken run", and it sheds light on the state of grassroots Tory party attitudes. They are fiercely Euro-sceptical and insistent on traditional family values.

In Mid-Worcestershire, Peter Luff, who has only been an MP since 1992, is the young pretender. Eric Forth, the right-wing education minister, is the established heavyweight.

Two-thirds of Mr Forth's old seat goes into a new seat, Redditch, which, along with Mr Luff's slimmed-down Worcester, would both fall to Labour on a 3 per cent swing at the next election. Both men appear to be pessimistic about the Conservatives' prospects in 1997. So both have plumped for the new Mid-Worcestershire seat, which would have had an estimated Tory majority of 14,500 at the last election.

The new seat includes Hanbury, the village on which the fictional Ambridge is modelled, as well as the larger towns of Droitwich and Evesham.

Mr Forth explained his reasons for abandoning the majority of his constituents in characteristically blunt terms: "It happens to be be politically advantageous - and since politics is my career and pays my wages and my mortgage, I see nothing mysterious in it."

Mr Forth has the better claim to the new seat, which includes one-third of his old one, but only a tenth of Mr Luff's. But Mr Luff has pursued members of the new Mid-Worcestershire Conservative Association with such vigour that Mr Forth, who is normally an aggressive streetfighter, sounds remarkably downbeat about his chances. "I am not confident, I never predict elections," he said.

The contest speaks volumes about the values of ordinary Conservative members. The formerly wet Mr Luff, inheritor not just of Peter Walker's Worcester seat but of his One Nation Tory tradition, has undergone a startling transformation as a right-wing populist in just the last few months.

Mr Luff has always been opposed to the Euro-sceptics in the Tory party, and joined the Positive Europeans group of Tory MPs after entering the Commons three years ago. But in July, he suddenly discovered that he did not think Britain should join a single European currency. He claims he was persuaded by a fellow MP.

Meanwhile, Mr Forth, a Thatcherite populist, a member of the mid-1980s "No Turning Back" group formed to keep the revolution on track, has been inhibited from speaking out by his ministerial responsibilities. Unlike Mr Luff, he has voted for capital punishment, which will go down well with the party faithful, but he has also voted for the complete deregulation of Sunday trading, which probably will not.

At the same time, Mr Luff made a speech to a local Tory women's conference which was prominently reported in the Worcester Evening News. "It's not good enough for MPs to talk about family values - they must also practise what they preach," he said. "If an MP cannot keep the most important promise he or she makes to wife or husband, how can voters trust them to keep the promises they make to them?" It will not have escaped many of his audience that Mr Forth divorced his wife Linda last year, while the Evening News described his rival as "father-of-two Mr Luff, who married 13 years ago".

Whoever wins tonight, the loser cannot go back. The process to choose a new Tory candidate in Redditch - which contains most of Mr Forth's seat - is already under way, and applications for Worcester - Mr Luff's old seat - closed yesterday. The loser will have to take a sabbatical or join the "chicken run".