The Tory with nothing to lose, which is probably just as well

Neil Kinnock's successor as MP chosen this week
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The Independent Online
WHAT the Conservative Party needs at this parlous stage of its fortunes is a pointless sacrifice. Step forward Robert Buckland, a 26- year-old barrister with a promising career on the Wales and Chester circuit, who in five days' time will lose the 29th successive by-election for the Government (William Hague at Richmond in 1989 was the last Tory winner).

Mr Buckland is John Major's standard-bearer in Islwyn, where Labour is taking no chances in shoring up the 24,728 majority bequeathed by Neil Kinnock before he quit Westminster for Brussels. Labour's candidate, Don Touhig, has three MP "minders". The hapless Tory has none.

What is more, the Conservative offices look like a remnant from Labour's old days: a few old ladies shovelling election addresses into brown envelopes in a tiny shop, whereas "new Labour" has men in suits, ranks of gleaming computers and filter coffee and toast for the media. It is difficult to believe the Tories are taking this poll seriously.

Last time, the Conservative vote was only just over 6,000 - one-fifth of Kinnock's 30,908. This time, the government candidate will be fortunate to retain his deposit, and certainly risks losing second place, probably to Plaid Cymru's Jocelyn Davies, a well-known local councillor.

So why does Mr Buckland do it? Is it some form of political sado-masochism? Perhaps not - others have been this way before, and have not regretted it. Peter Brooke was savaged in this mining constituency before securing an easy berth in the City of London, and Tim Yeo, the former minister who did not go back to basics, stood here before retreating to Suffolk South.

They are part of a tradition of "blooding" young Tory hopefuls in mining constituencies. They know their ambitions will be dashed, but Conservative Central Office calculates that the taste of defeat hardens the resolve of candidates really determined to succeed.

The last pit in Islwyn closed with the loss of 800 jobs six years ago, but tradition dies hard. Young Mr Buckland, a Dyfed county councillor from Llanelli, upset voters early in his campaign by attacking subsidies for heavy industry. "I was accused of being insensitive," he admits. "But I wasn't decrying the hard work and the contribution of the miners. But time doesn't stand still. Changes have to be made. It's not an easy message."

He can say that again. The forest of Touhig posters in the old miners' rows and on the council estates indicates another Labour walkover, though almost certainly with a reduced majority. There is some disgruntlement with Labour-dominated Islwyn council and with the party's uninterrupted parliamentary run since 1918. "I'd love to live in a marginal constituency," said one Tory voter, retired car component worker Thomas Porter. "Our vote is wasted."

Perhaps not completely, though not in the way he thinks. Mr Buckland, who won his Llanelli council seat last year with a majority of three after a recount, also contested the European seat of South Wales West last June.

He took only 12 per cent of the vote, coming 83,000 behind Labour, but he is clearly a trier and he has a long-term agenda. If he makes an even halfway decent fist of Islwyn, he will be among the front-runners to inherit the marginal Tory seat at Conwy on the north Wales coast, where the long- serving incumbent, Sir Wyn Roberts, is retiring.

Conwy would suit Mr Buckland. He is a hard-line unionist, opposed to an elected assembly for Wales. He doesn't believe that animals have rights, he doesn't speak Welsh (along with 98 per cent of Islwyn voters), but claims to understand it better than most of those who say they do. He "would certainly consider" sending his children to a Welsh-speaking school, though he is still only at the girlfriend stage.

He insists: "My roots in Wales are strong. Welsh politics is a challenge. I have more chance to play a major part by staying in Wales than going to England - at the moment.

"It's all about opportunities that arise. Experience has taught me to seize opportunities. I am a Welshman, but I am equally British, and that sense of Britishness would not prevent me from thinking about the whole of Britain. My belief in the union is the strongest influence in my politics." In other words, a safe English seat will do just as well.

As Mr Buckland privately concedes, "you're only as good as your last by-election", and Islwyn will not be a good result for the Tories. But he has friends at court. People at Central Office describe him as "one of the brightest up-and-coming" party figures in Wales.

His political hero is Teddy Roosevelt, motto - Speak Quietly and Carry a Big Stick - and he insists with mystic fervour: "I believe in the concept of a strenuous life."