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Confessions of a Tory canvasser: Hester Lacey goes on the stump in Christchurch and sees true-blue grit yield to intimations of mortification

MONDAY: 'I've got something to get us going]' cried Clare, jamming a tape into the dashboard. As we swept through the crowded Christchurch streets, our car festooned with blue Rob Hayward posters, the Conservative Election Broadcast Theme swelled forth.

None of us was local. Regional Conservatives can call on Mutual Aid, a national network of election groupies, to help with canvassing, leafleting and postering when a vital vote is looming. Clare, in tight jodphurs, high black spike heels and pale-blue Conservative sweatshirt, had come from Tewkesbury; Gillian, in pleated navy skirt and Windsmoor jacket, from Swindon; and Angie, in sensible leggings and trainers, from Gloucester. Clare, an enthusiastic Young Conservative, had already stood for election; Angie, in her twenties, was taking a few days off from her job in computing.

All three were relentlessly upbeat. 'I had an operation recently,' confided Gillian, a mother of four, 'but if I need to, I'll just stop for a rest.' 'Quite right, there's nothing worse than being treated as a bloody invalid,' agreed Clare bracingly. 'I was out canvassing less than 24 hours after my baby was born.'

Angie explained her canvassing philosophy: 'The Conservatives who are undecided, you let them have a pop at you. They think you've got a hotline to John Major and will pass it all on, then they vote for us just the same.'

The canvasser's job is to persuade waverers back into the fold. Sue, organiser of the Conservative campaign headquarters in the district of Highcliffe, square-jawed and steely in her navy suit, sent me off with a batch of canvassing forms, a sheet summarising the Tory position on Maastricht ('The Prime Minister has acted decisively. . . . He rightly wants to draw a line and get us moving forward again.') and cards listing 'Key Points on Pensioners' ('extending prescription charges to pensioners is quite definitely not on'), VAT ('Some EC countries impose VAT on fuel at rates as high as 25 per cent]'), and Rob Hayward OBE (a qualified rugby referee).

Some people simply told me to go away. 'My vote is between me and the election box,' said one elderly man with dignity, shutting the door in my face. Others were eager to talk. 'I've always voted Conservative, but this government needs - sorry, dear - but it needs a kick up the bum] And you can tell them that from me.'

Another lady interrupted her lunch. 'Look what you've done to small businesses]' she bristled. 'My son has a small business in Christchurch and he said to me, 'Mum, I hope you're not going to vote Conservative.' And I'm not]'

Robert Adley, the late MP, must have been an old lady's dream. 'Such a nice man . . . he really cared about this area . . . oh, he was a charming young man.' 'I bet none of them had ever even met him,' snorted a pony-tailed Essex Mutual Aider, back at the office. 'One man tried to invite me in to discuss bringing Enoch Powell back from the wilderness]' squeaked a canvasser. 'They're a load of fascists round here,' moaned Robert, the other HQ organiser.

TUESDAY: The Liberals were out in force in the High Street. 'Paddy Pantsdown's in town,' sneered Robert. Their fluorescent orange stickers stood out vividly in windows and gardens.

I went for a day's 'delivering' - trudging up long gravelled driveways with leaflets, always shutting the gate behind me and never taking a short-cut across a border or lawn. I squelched up to houses that had stoutly hinged, bewhiskered, finger-trapping letter-boxes. They had names like The Cedars (there weren't any), The Moorings (half a mile from the sea), The Sylvan Cottage (in the middle of a suburb).

'The Tories don't realise that this is Dunkirk]' complained one man from his BMW, as my leaflets turned to pulp in the rain. 'All of this avenue should be Tory to a man, but our friends are voting Liberal] Where's the Dunkirk spirit?'

'We don't like Hayward]' squawked a pair of little girls, ejecting a leaflet from their letter- box. 'And you're fat]'

An old lady with a stick tottered into the office to collect her quota of leaflets. 'Could I have houses without long drives, please?' I knew how she felt.

WEDNESDAY: Sir Norman Fowler, the party chairman, turned up to address the faithful. The little office was crowded with a dozen elderly ladies, immaculately coiffured and made-up, most dressed all in blue, accompanied by a dozen old gentlemen in suits. Sue eyed them balefully. 'Just look at them, in their best bibs and tuckers. You can't get a pair of tights anywhere in this town - it's stockings wherever you go.'

'This has been a difficult by- election,' remarked Sir Norman, to sage nods from his audience. 'But Rob Hayward has done remarkably well. He is bouncy. He is cheerful.'

'I think that's very important, the cheerfulness,' observed one of the elderly gentlemen. 'We won't let the b-s grind us down]' quipped another. 'I don't think there's any shame in using the b- word in full now,' smiled Sir Norman. There was general approval of John Major's outburst.

Rallied by the pep talk and charmed by Sir Norman ('So nice to meet him face to face and really tell him what one thought'), the locals departed with bundles of leaflets; but by 7pm, in the nearly deserted office, there was no air of eager anticipation. 'Gosh, look, I'm sure someone under 65 just walked past the window]' said one helper. 'Is it true that one of the leaflet-droppers has a basket attached to the front of their zimmer frame?'

THURSDAY: Armed with plates of home-made cakes, and cushions for the hard office chairs, the local ladies turned out in force, to help with telling in the committee room. Despite cheerful constituency chit-chat, there were ominous tidings. 'There's a carnival atmosphere in Christchurch, but it's not our doing,' grumbled a man in a blazer. 'They're terribly pessimistic in the Burton office. Apparently the canvass was dismal,' reported a lady in a floppy sunhat.

It was time for knocking-up - house calls to pledged voters who hadn't showed up at the polling booth. 'Everyone who can walk must get out on the streets]' said Sue. 'And keep smiling. It's coathanger-in-mouth time.'

We headed off obediently - but first knockings, second knockings, third and even fourth did not produce results. One Tory voter growled: 'I'm not voting at all. Since that Fowler came down and put his foot in it. I can't stand him. I'm sorry.'

Even among the committee- room stalwarts, pessimism was beginning to show. 'The canvass must be wrong]' maintained one lady stoutly. 'Who are these people who are going to vote Liberal? I certainly don't know any]'

The polls closed at 10pm but by 9.30 the posters were coming down. 'You go off for a drink,' said Sue. 'I'm at the helm of the Titanic here.'

The Tory helpers gathered in a local hotel bar to await the result. The mood was not upbeat. 'My lot took a two-hour lunchbreak - I couldn't get them to do a thing,' complained one. 'Pork, roast potatoes and five vegetables. Then they stopped for supper at seven - ham and fried eggs. If we'd really got going on the knocking- up we could probably have got another hundred votes.'

At 2am we were still waiting for a result. No one was pretending to expect anything but defeat by now - the question was by how much. 'Between 10 and 12,000.' '15,000?' 'Not more than eight.'

At last the count came through on the television. There was a low whistle of disbelief at Mr Hayward's score - and dead silence as Diana Maddock's was announced. 'I feel a bit sick,' said Sue. 'Do you realise,' asked someone, 'there are going to be heart attacks over this? The shock will be too much for the wrinklies. There'll be corpses all over Christchurch in the morning.'

Inside Story, page 15

(Photograph omitted)