A wind of change ruffles South Africa-on-Sea: Colin Brown finds disillusion among the traditional Tory supporters in Christchurch

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Indy Politics
FOR a Conservative candidate facing almost certain defeat in one of the safest Tory seats in the country, Rob Hayward looked remarkably cheerful yesterday when he officially began campaigning for the by-election at Christchurch, Dorset, on 29 July.

The Liberal Democrats, the main challengers, need a swing of 20 per cent to overturn the 23,015 majority - 8 per cent less than at Newbury.

Christchurch is the kind of seat a Tory candidate would normally give his eye teeth for. It stretches from the picturesque harbour town, which considers itself a cut above Bournemouth, to the edge of the New Forest with barely a council estate in sight.

But the disenchantment with the Government is palpable. The 17.5 per cent VAT on domestic fuel bills is unpopular with the pensioners, but more worrying for the Government, it is not any single policy which will be blamed for losing this seat.

'It's more than the VAT. It's the terrible state of the Government,' said Jacqueline Mosley, who runs Mudeford Stores near the quayside with her partner. Both have voted Tory all their lives, and neither intend to do so in this by-election.

'It's a lack of leadership. I don't think John Major is very strong. Maggie Thatcher was very good. She didn't always get it right, but she was good,' said Ms Mosley, who is thinking of voting Liberal Democrat.

That view is echoed by their customers. It was shared by Michelle Laker, who runs the fish shop in Saxon Square, in the centre of Christchurch where several small shops have had to close since Sainsbury's moved out. 'I have always voted Conservative. I am a bit more dubious this time. They always used to look after the small businesses but they don't now.' The daughter of John Batchelor, who runs the fish business selling freshly-landed sole, cod, and conger eel at Mudeford Quay, Mrs Laker said she had always had it 'drummed into her' not to vote Labour. She might give the Liberal Democrats a try.

The dissatisfaction among the small shopkeepers was aired at a meeting last week. As important opinion formers, they are the sort of people Mr Hayward, 44, a former Tory MP who lost his Bristol seat at the last election, is seeking to win back. He is setting about the task by following an American idea of holding 'at homes' at which a local party worker invites all the neighbours to discuss issues with the candidate. The meetings, lasting more than an hour, enable Mr Hayward also to tackle the Adley factor, the popularity of his Tory predecessor, whose death caused by the by-election. They have confirmed that VAT is not the issue journalists would like it to be. One constituent rang up the Tory headquarters and complained that VAT on fuel was proving a problem for her gardener. 'It's law and order, social security fraud, and the New Age travellers,' said Mr Hayward. He is a supporter of the death penalty but some of his constituents would not mind if he advocated it for the travellers. The ancient Ducking Stool signposted in the High Street might make a come back. 'We have the stocks raised in our meetings, oh, and compulsory castration.'

There is a strong colonial tendency in the town, where the elderly professional couples have retired in droves, lending it the air of South Africa-on-Sea. Mr Hayward has already been challenged in Afrikaans, which he speaks, at one of his meetings.

1992 election: R Adley (Con) 36,627 (63.5 per cent); D Bussey (Lib Dem) 13,612 (23.6); A Lloyd 6,997 (12.1); J Barratt (Nat Law) 243 (0.4); A Wareham (Raving) 175 (0.3). Con maj 23,015. Electorate 71,469. Turn-out 80.9 per cent.


AGE: 24% aged 0-24; 42% are 25 to 60/65; 34% over pensionable age.

ECONOMY: 51% of the total population is listed as 'economically inactive'; 32.1% of the total population is retired; 6.4% of the working population is unemployed; 17% are self-employed.

HOUSING: 58.3% are detached houses; 14.2% semi-detached; 13.4% terrace; 13.7% flats.

CARS: 50.5% of households own one car; 24% own two cars; 5.8% own three cars or more; 18.7% own no car.

(1991 figures)

(Photograph omitted)