Tory with a mission to complain

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The Independent Online
IF THE Tory conference handbook is any guide, one subject will be uppermost in representatives' minds when they assemble at Blackpool on Monday: value-added tax on fuel.

There are more than 140 motions critical of the measure, but whether they will get to debate it is open to question. While constituency associations up and down the land have thundered with resolutions, the one selected for debate by the stage managers at Central Office 'urges the Government to continue with its economic policies designed to bring the UK out of recession . . . and further urges the Government not to be deflected from this task'.

However, the organisers should be warned: at least one man is going to Blackpool determined to try to speak his mind. Jack Richardson, 57, is a Conservative county and borough councillor. A doughty north-easterner who moved across the Pennines to Cumbria, he is a retired council chief housing officer and now devotes himself to local politics and his four children and two grand- children. As an immovable pillar of the party, he would never dream of going against the Tories. Until now.

Mr Richardson, from Barrow-in- Furness, has experienced the harm that VAT on fuel could wreak for the Tories. Canvassing on doorsteps in council by-elections this year, he was told repeatedly by 'people who were natural Conservative supporters: 'I won't be voting for the Tory candidate and I won't be able to do so while VAT on fuel remains.' '

And Mr Richardson has an alarming message for the party: if it thought the poll tax was disliked VAT on fuel will prove far worse.

If he gets to speak, Mr Richardson says he will give it to John Major straight. 'I will say that this thing is an electoral nightmare. Can he imagine what it's like to have to canvass with this issue hanging over our heads?'

In the May county council elections, his majority was more than halved. 'People were pretty blunt about it. They mentioned VAT on fuel all the time - it was a millstone we could have done without'.

Taxing fuel, he said, was fundamentally wrong. 'It's a regressive tax.' It was no good, he said, for the Government to believe that by offering benefits to alleviate the cost of the tax, the problem would be solved. It will not. Those just above the poverty line, who do not qualify for benefits will suffer, and 'a lot of them are our natural supporters'.

So worried is the Barrow association about the electoral impact of the tax that two weeks ago a letter was written to the Prime Minister. 'We expressed our concern and asked for a rethink,' said Mr Richardson, 'but we didn't get a helpful reply. He just thanked us for writing'.

Barrow is a marginal seat - John Hutton, the Labour MP, has a majority of 3,500, having overturned a Tory majority of just under 4,000 at the last election.

Mr Richardson said: 'I can't blame the Government for trying to control the economy and reduce the public sector borrowing requirement. What I can't accept is VAT on fuel. There are alternatives.'

(Photograph omitted)