The Tamworth manifesto: lots of bottom and shoes that shine

Paul Routledge on the Tory candidate for the Staffordshire South East by-election
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The Independent Online
IT ALL comes down to bottom. That indefinable quality of political gravitas which Conservatives believe they are born to but to which those Labour fellows can only aspire.

Sir David Lightbown, whose premature death while watching rugby has precipitated a by-election in Staffordshire South East, had bottom. The 18-stone Deputy Chief Whip squelched back-benchers who defied the party line. Local stalwarts recall wistfully that he was "a hard man who reduced MPs to tears".

Sir David was an unabashed right-wing populist of the old school: a hanger and a supporter of rebel rugby tours to apartheid South Africa. He was against divorced men being ordained in the Church of England, opposed compulsory fluoridation of water and wanted to force advertising on the BBC. His constituents loved it, and returned him with an increased majority at the last election.

Find bottom like that today! They just don't quarry them any more. Yet the Tories are quietly congratulating themselves that they might just have found it, in the leaner shape of Jimmy James, a former Royal Artillery major who opposes the Lord Chancellor's plans for no-fault divorce and thinks couples should wait at least 18 months before they can untie the knot.

Mr James, aged 44, is a singular man. He is the only Tory candidate for Bolsover known to have shaken hands with "the Beast" himself, Dennis Skinner, despite being annihilated at the polls. He emigrated to Australia on leaving Marlborough College, did National Service in the Royal Australian Regiment and gets misty-eyed over missing active service in Vietnam. He went through Sandhurst and served five tours of duty in Northern Ireland. His precise, clipped manner, not to mention shiny shoes, immediately betrays the professional soldier.

But he is not a bundle of West Midlands prejudices. He talks with a winning smile of "caring Conservatism". He works as a charity fund-raising consultant, sits on Northampton council and chairs a neighbourhood churches appeal committee. He even reads books, having just finished a life of Lord Nuffield.

Tony Blair knows that Staffordshire South East is a critical test. The constituency, centred on the ancient town of Tamworth, is everything that New Labour would like to be seen to stand for. Unemployment is lower than the national average - there are even skill shortages. European investment is strong. The population has tripled to 78,000 in the last four decades, much of it from Birmingham overspill. Yet Tamworth scores higher than Hove or Hereford on the University of Bristol's wealth rank index. Owner-occupation is 6 per cent higher than the national average, and there are fewer single-parent families than the average. This is classic middle England, which New Labour needs to win.

Tamworth is also where Sir Robert Peel virtually invented the modern Conservative party with his manifesto to the voters in 1834. Latter-day Tories are talking of a "Tamworth Pledge" of policies to revive the idea of a political contract with the people. Sir David bequeaths a majority of 7,192, which would require a 6.3 per cent swing to Labour for the seat to fall - a mere bagatelle by comparison with the swings of 20 per cent- plus recorded in this parliament.

But launching Labour's campaign last week, Deputy Leader John Prescott sounded a note of caution. "We know from previous by-elections that as we get closer to a general election the protest-vote factor is reduced and it may be harder for us here to persuade Conservatives to switch to Labour."

Even Labour's candidate, communications and media lecturer Brian Jenkins, concedes: "They think their votes are coming back." But Mr James buys the John Major package completely, and on the doorstep it is not playing well. The borough council is dominated by Labour, and Mr Jenkins, who leads it, finds continuing voter anger over the Government's "betrayal" of its tax promises.

Does Mr Jenkins have bottom? Not yet, must be the considered view. He was the candidate here in 1992 and clearly failed to impress. He must be hoping that bottom weighs more heavily at Westminster than among the unsettled voters of South Staffordshire.