Christchurch By-election: Poll canvassers find relief from the M-word: The View from Europe

IT MAY have been quite a storm at Westminster, but it didn't touch Christchurch. Yesterday, the by-election issues were the old favourites: VAT, law and order, the recession. A Conservative canvasser confessed that he had heard the M-word mentioned only once on more than 100 doorsteps.

The one place where you could talk about the Maastricht votes was at the breakfast-time press conferences of the three major parties. The Liberal Democrat candidate, Diana Maddock, said that the picture given from the Commons was of an 'absolutely rudderless' government - 'a great favour' to her campaign.

But the Social Chapter meant little in the New Forest town of Verwood, as Rob Hayward, the Conservative candidate, sat down to be quizzed by 20 residents of a private sheltered housing development. The issues here were VAT on fuel - the pensioners, understandably, would rather see a rise in income tax - and the prospect of prescription charges. It was 30 minutes before Maastricht was raised, and then with the plaintive cry, 'no one seems to know what it is about'. Mr Hayward's visit then turned into a lesson in basic Euro-mechanics.

Most of the pensioners affirmed their support for Mr Hayward, but disillusion among the retired people - 34 per cent of the electorate - is the key to the Liberal Democrats' hopes. As Mr Hayward canvassed the streets of Verwood, John Hobday, 71, a former steel industry engineer, emerged to announce: 'I'd sooner drop dead than vote Conservative. They've been in for 15 years and they haven't done a thing.' By inclination a Labour voter, he intends to vote tactically for the Liberal Democrats. His companion, once a Conservative voter, confided that now, as a Jehovah's Witness, she'd already voted for Jehovah.

Half the Conservatives' 1992 general election vote could plump for Jehovah, or stay at home, next Thursday and Mr Hayward would still win comfortably. So Diana Maddock is busy identifying the wavering tendency and putting them under pressure - she knows that the disgruntled Tories have to get out and vote for her.

On a housing association estate in the village of Three Legged Cross, Cheryl Pretty got a good five minutes of the Maddock treatment. It left her undecided. Mrs Pretty, 46, is concerned about law and order and what she calls 'wimpishness in government'. 'I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Tory, but I'm not impressed by John Major,' she said, though it is not Maastricht but the absence of Margaret Thatcher that may keep her away from the polling booth.

Only Alan Sked, standing again on an anti-Maastricht ticket, claimed to have found any interest for the issue - he says he has sold 24 copies of the treaty at pounds 2.99 each. Mr Sked, a lecturer at the London School of Economics, was not cast down by the end of the treaty's progress through Westminster. 'This is the beginning of our new campaign: to get enough people into Parliament to repel the treaty.'

But matters European are a turn-off in Christchurch. Earlier this week, Sir David Steel asked an elderly lady if she wished to talk about Maastricht. 'No,' she replied, 'I want to talk about my pension.'

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