Grassroot Tories prepare for Apocalypse Thursday

Paul Routledge lends an ear to Peterborough's voices of doom
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The Independent Online
Neville Sanders, the forbidding hill of a man who leads the Conservatives on Peterborough city council, knows that his party is about to lose control. He blames "events far removed" (Peterborough is all of 50 minutes by train from London) for the disaster that is almost certain to overtake the Tories in Thursday's local elections.

"The Government's basic philosophy is OK," he said last week, "but nobody seems to realise that being a member of the government is probably the most onerous job in the country.

"I think they are tired, and when you are dog-tired you don't make the same rational decisions as when you are normal. They are over-tired. I would vote to give them a rest. I would love to have a change of government for six months, but you will not get that."

The next Labour government, he predicts, will have to go begging for ecus as the Wilson administration did for dollars. We will then have a federal Europe "dominated by the Fourth Reich; it will end in World War Three".

If they do not quite share Mr Sanders's apocalyptic vision of stormtroopers goose-stepping down Cowgate, most Tories in Peterborough are gloomy. This is the political backyard of Dr Brian Mawhinney, the hard-nosed chairman of the Conservative party, and the Tories have controlled the council - albeit with the support of some old-style Liberals - for 10 years. Leading Tory councillors privately admit they will lose at least half the seats they are contesting on Thursday; Labour thinks it could take the lot. Either way, Labour will sweep to power.

Over England and Wales as a whole, the Tories are likely to lose hundreds of seats. But they have overall control in only four of the 196 councils involved; they are likely to lose Macclesfield and Runnymede, but hold on to Broxbourne and Huntingdon.

Peterborough does not say much for the state of Conservatism in 1996. The constituency chairman, county councillor John Peach, has just stepped down amid allegations of vote-fixing - among other things, he is supposed to have signed up sixth-formers, from a school where he is a governor, as party members. The town (formerly parish) council of Bretton, a prosperous neighbourhood in the north of the city, has already fallen to Labour without a shot being fired: the six Tory candidates were disqualified after the wrong people signed their nomination papers.

The elections should be about local issues. To judge by last week's debates in the council chamber, these include: Should street buskers be obliged to take out insurance? (There could be a problem with performers juggling chainsaws.) And why did the county council insist on turning off one rural street light in eight to save money? Couldn't they get rid of some teachers instead? "Colonel" Sanders was in his element: "It's high time a lot of teachers were made redundant."

A Labour spokesman admitted last week that nobody is "interested intrinsically" in the election outcome. "The only question is, what signal does this give us about the state of the parties with a year to go before the general election?"

The gloomiest Tory prediction is the loss of all but 200 of the 1,200 seats they are defending across the country. Labour is deliberately playing down its prospects, arguing that 500 gains will be very satisfactory, thank you. Labour is anxious to prevent the outcome being "Kenneth Bakered": that is to say, a defeat being seasonally adjusted to look like victory.

The Tories' realistic expectation is that they will poll around 23 per cent of the vote. Anything more than that, and look out for some self- basting sighs of relief from Dr Mawhinney.