Gloom and doom grips true blues: Steve Boggan finds Newbury's declining Tory membership in a disillusioned state

IT USED to be fun at Newbury Conservative Club. The pastel chairs and dainty banquettes were filled with true blues having a good time, Tories on the crest of Margaret Thatcher's economic wave. Yesterday, the clientele - a woman, two men and a dog - looked as glum as Michael Portillo with a broken hair-drier.

It was here in last year's by- election that John Major admitted to receiving a bloody nose when voters abandoned him in their thousands, turning a Conservative advantage of 12,357 into a 22,055 majority for the Liberal Democrats. The swing was described as a protest vote, but yesterday even those who remained loyal in the by-election doubted they would vote Conservative next time.

'The whole damn show is a mess,' one senior Conservative club official said. 'People here . . . simply don't trust this Government anymore. Health, crime, education, taxation - they are all hopeless problems and the politicians can tell us the recession is over until they're blue in the face, but people just have to look around to see the unemployment.'

The Conservative Club has lost 400 of its 1,300 members since John Major became Prime Minister. Those remaining have few kind words for him. One estimated about 50 per cent either voted Liberal or did not vote at all in the May 1993 by-election.

Reginald North, 77, a retired postman, and his wife Edna, 62, said the Tories needed to adopt a softer social line. They have always voted Conservative but say they are considering changing at the next election. 'The rich are getting richer and the poor poorer,' Mrs North said. 'We can only just manage on our pensions, yet the Government's policies always seem to be aimed at helping those with money to get even more. They have to be more caring towards the vulnerable in society, but the NHS is a shambles at a time when more of the population is growing older.'

Mr North said the mood of voters was accurately reflected by the gloom in the club. 'It would take more than a quick change on social policy to satisfy people. The monetary side - tax, VAT on fuel - needs tackling . . .'

Life-long Tory voters Kenneth Garnett, 67, and his wife June, 65, retired civil servants, put law and order and tax rises at the top of their hit-list, but they said voter confidence had been as much affected by the Government's behaviour as its performance. 'They've had too many scandals and made too many bloody U-turns to trust now,' Mr Garnett said. 'The NHS is going to continue to be a problem . . . I'd like to save something to leave for my grandchildren, but I'm afraid I might have to use it if ever I need to go into a nursing home because there are so few local authority homes left.'

Up and down Northbrook Street in the town centre, there were many complained about unemployment but, at 4.8 per cent, it is little more than half the national average.

Victoria McCall of Burroughs estate agents best summed up the mood. 'The Government has a passion for low inflation but that forces up unemployment, so people don't benefit,' she said. 'They're constantly introducing policies and then back-tracking because they haven't been thought through - just look at the Child Support Agency.

'They promised to keep our taxes down but they increased them. People are terribly worried about the NHS and the possibility of pensions being hived off. We now have beggars on the streets of Newbury.

'On top of that, we have MPs involved in scandal after scandal . . . the Government is full of tactless, immature, self-seeking, self- promoting buffoons.'

(Photograph omitted)