Christchurch: lots of tea and little sympathy

'HUNT the Conservative' was the game in Christchurch last week - a sport that in this, the party's second safest constituency in the country, ought to be as undemanding as finding leaves in the Dorset woods. But your genuine, convinced Tory has gone to ground: on a drive from the coast to the constituency's northern edge in the New Forest you see barely a handful of blue posters - hardly more than Labour's.

St Leonards is the plushest corner of this plushest of constituencies. North of Christchurch, the Dorset heathland is interspersed with a rhododendron jungle. The constituency has the highest number of detached dwellings (58 per cent) in England, but here the houses are so far apart that it seems silly to call it a village. It looks a Conservative spot.

At Oakengates, the timbered retirement villa of Bill Brayne, a former consul, Rob Hayward, the Tory candidate, is holding his 33rd 'At Home': a sort of political Tupperware party. The Braynes have invited 15 neighbours to tea while the candidate sells himself. But the group of genteel retired people uses him as a punchbag, with some fairly ill-tempered scrapping over whose turn it is to have a go.

First is Harry Hall, 79, ex-Indian colonial service, who wants to talk about the taking of pensioners' assets to fund their care in homes. 'The public relations of the Tory Government seems to be a failure,' he says. Mr Hayward blames the media.

VAT on domestic fuel comes next ('disgusting]'), then rail privatisation and crime ('For four elections your main thing has been law and order, but you haven't done anything about it] Broken promises, again]').

Mr Hayward, 44, is capable and hard-working - he was formerly MP for Kingswood in Bristol - but the assault gets him flustered. His answers ramble and his line on VAT - that the only things you can rely on in life are taxes and death - goes down like a coffin among his audience. His best moment comes when he confirms that he is in favour of capital punishment: 'Thank goodness for that,' breathes a choleric former civil servant.

Afterwards, with tea poured and gentility restored, the Braynes and friends shake Mr Hayward's hand and complain about the lack of leaflets. Out of earshot, two say they won't be voting. 'This,' Mr Hayward says privately, 'is a sophisticated electorate. You have to talk positively with them. No one said it was going to be easy.'

He leaves to go training with Christchurch Rugby Club. The sleek grey battlebus that bears him away boasts a fax, phones, a PA system. But most useful, perhaps, is the large box of paracetamol on the dashboard.

The Liberal Democrats - ahead by 15 per cent in the local press polls - might be forgiven for thinking it is all over bar the voting. But they have their own headache. The 63.5 per cent of the electorate that voted Conservative in 1992 may be hiding but, as the Liberal Democrat agent, Willie Rennie, says, 'that doesn't mean they're going to come out for us. We have to change the habits of a lifetime'.

The Lib Dems have undoubtedly taken the honours in the campaign's first 10 days but their caution is well-founded. Their task is almost unparalleled. The late Robert Adley gained 39.9 per cent more of the vote than the Lib Dem runner-up in 1992, the second largest Tory majority in percentage terms in the country. This is a larger gap than in the party's most remarkable recent by-election victory, Ribble Valley in 1991. And the electorate here, at 71,469, is larger. If half of Mr Hayward's voters stay at home, he would still win by 5,000.

The swing that gave the Lib Dems victory at Newbury in April would comfortably deliver Christchurch, but things are different here. There is no Liberal tradition: the Lib Dems took Dorset County Council in May but have only one seat locally. All the Conservatives held their seats, taking more than half the vote. Christchurch has not had a Liberal MP since 1906, and at the beginning of the by-election campaign the local party had only 80 members.

When Mr Rennie talks of the habits of a lifetime, he is talking about some very long lives. More than a third of the population is of pensionable age. As a result the campaign's first half has been dominated by the issues of VAT on domestic fuel and prescription charges for pensioners. VAT is on the lips of every pensioner on a fixed income, and the efficient and likeable Lib Dem candidate, a 48-year-old teacher, Diana Maddock, has managed to hang it heavy round Tory necks.

On Friday morning the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, came to Christchurch's King's Arms Hotel to say - again, and quite categorically - 'We are not going to introduce prescription charges for pensioners.' However, the Lib Dems have no intention of dropping the issue. One campaigner said: 'The Conservatives can say what they like. We just say to the voters, 'Well, do you still believe the Conservatives?' And the answer invariably is 'No'.'

Mr Clarke went on to a 45- minute closed meeting with local business people. Some of these - including Lillian Jeffris, chairman of the Chamber of Commerce - emerged to profess themselves reassured and ready to vote Conservative; but others were unimpressed. Ian Middleton, the 40-year-old owner of a Christchurch garage business, was one of them: 'I've seen nearly a 50 per cent reduction in my turnover in two years, and I'm lucky I haven't gone under. I was hoping today would give me some extra hope, but Clarke gives me none.'

A life-long Tory, he will now be voting Liberal Democrat - 'like the majority of my friends. We want the Conservatives out of Christchurch. It's not a protest vote. We've seen our businesses systematically destroyed.'

But it is clear that the former Conservative vote is still floating freely. A strong Labour candidate, 32-year-old barrister Nigel Lickley, is not going to give away easily his 7,000 votes.

The Lib Dems have their battle-hardened by-election team (and the computer system that helped them win Newbury) and have recognised the scent of success. Yet Candy Piercy, their national campaigns officer, insists that they still have a huge task. 'We're talking about a tribal shift. We have to convince these people that voting Liberal Democrat is socially acceptable.'

(Photograph omitted)

News
John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
Sport
Jonas Gutierrez (r) competes with Yaya Toure (l)
football

Newcastle winger is in Argentina having chemotherapy

Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum
theatre

Returning to the stage after 20 years makes actress feel 'nauseous'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
peopleThe Times of India said actress should treat it as a 'compliment'
News
news

Watch this commuter make a mad 320-metre, 75-step dash to work
Property
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
lifeShould we feel guilty about keeping cats inside?
News
The programme sees four specialists creating what they believe are three perfect couples, based on scientific matchmaking. The couples will not meet until they walk down the aisle together
tvUK edition of wedding show forced to recast after wave of drop-outs
Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Arts and Entertainment
You've been framed: Henri Matisse's colourful cut-outs at Tate Modern
artWhat makes a smash-hit art show
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
Student
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama is to offer a BA degree in Performance and Creative Enterprise
student

Top conservatoire offers ‘groundbreaking’ arts degree

Sport
Mikel Arteta pictured during Borussia Dortmund vs Arsenal
champions league
Voices
Yes supporters gather outside the Usher Hall, which is hosting a Night for Scotland in Edinburgh
voicesBen Judah: Is there a third option for England and Scotland that keeps everyone happy?
Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Teaching Assistants

£50 - £85 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Rapidly developing and growing ...

Supply Teachers needed in Stowmarket

£1034496 - £1516224 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: The Job:Randstad ...

Primary Teacher EYFS, KS1 and KS2

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education are urgentl...

SEN Teaching Assistant Runcorn

£50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant EBD , Septemb...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week