After 46 years in Parliament, `old Dreadnought' sets sail for one more battle with the young guns

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Indy Politics
At war with the last two leaders of his own party, Sir Edward Heath is now under siege in his own parliamentary constituency as political rivals prepare to do battle for the seat at the general election.

Midway through his 81st year, Sir Edward faces a multiple threat at the hustings. One rival - the Liberal Democrat candidate - is so young that he was not even born when Mr Heath first moved into No 10; another - the Referendum Party candidate - is a former Downing Street adviser who used to help write his speeches. But any politician once described as "a vast old battleship of the Dreadnought class" will take some beating.

For the past 46 years he has represented the interests of the people of north Kent in Westminster; first as the MP for Bexley and now for the newer seat of Old Bexley and Sidcup.

Despite his age, and the fact that he lives nearly 100 miles away in Salisbury, Sir Edward is still seen as a local boy made good; the son of a Kent carpenter who grew up to be prime minister.

The President of the Oxford Union in 1939, he led the Conservatives to general election victory seven months before one of his chief rivals in the coming poll was even born.

Iain King, 26 last Wednesday and the Liberal Democrat candidate for the seat, is hoping to turn age into an election issue. He points out that 43 per cent of voters in the constituency are under 40, and claims that voters are telling him that they are looking for a younger MP.

"There is a view that he is a bit past it," Mr King said. "I get the impression that he is a bit bored with it all."

Mr King, who grew up in Gloucestershire before going to Oxford University, was briefly editor of a national student newspaper. For the past four years he has worked at the Liberal Democrats' headquarters in Westminster, where he is responsible for "turning key messages of party policy into soundbites".

He concedes that Sir Edward's "big achievement was getting into Europe" but thinks that health and not the single currency is the real election issue.

One person who would strongly disagree with him is one of Sir Edward's former aides, Brian Reading, 60 - an economic adviser between 1966 and 1972 - who is standing on behalf of Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party.

He believes Sir Edward is "totally wrong on Europe", but says that although he has chosen to stand directly against his former boss he bears no personal grudge and hopes the issues can be discussed without "fudge or rancour".

Now working as an economic consultant and writer, Mr Reading, 60, believes that Britain could only join the single currency if it gives up control of both national taxes and public spending. "As long as national parliaments are answerable to national voters, the ability of governments to raise taxes or cut spending is constrained by what the electorate will accept."

He said Britain's relationship with Europe had already gone too far. "Many British laws are now made in Brussels, with proposals debated in secret by a council of ministers. The British people do not appear to realise that this is happening."

The Old Bexley and Sidcup constituents appear to represent the epitome of Middle England, with one of the highest proportion of owner occupiers and the lowest percentage of non-whites of any constituency in the country. Boundary changes, however, have meant a further 10,000 voters being drawn into the area from the London side of the constituency.

In between voting at Westminster last week, Sir Edward said he was confident and "well-organised" for the coming campaign. He pointed out that many of the older voters will know him from his days as Bexley MP prior to 1974.

The boundary changes may help the Labour candidate who Sir Edward's supporters regard as their greatest threat to his 15,699 majority. Richard Justham, 30, is a local councillor and trade union official, who has lived all his life in the constituency. His task, he says, is to show the voters that Sir Edward is out of step with his own party. "I've got to get over to the people that while a lot of Sir Edward's values are quite honourable they are not going to see them implemented by voting Conservative."

Mr Justham's confidence is increased by the knowledge that the Tories will not be able to attack him for being soft on Europe when he is standing against the man who took Britain into the Common Market.

He hopes that the Referendum Party and the fringe UK Independence Party will help him to unseat the former prime minister. "I believe that if they get the right-wing Tory vote then I will be able to sneak through the middle," he said.

Being in the middle, however, is part of Labour's problem. The party needs to present itself as an alternative to the Government but will find it hard to beat Sir Edward's own record as an outspoken critic of both the Thatcher and the Major administrations.

As recently as last week, the "old Dreadnought" returned to the fray to attack Michael Portillo, the Defence Secretary, over the handling of a replacement for the royal yacht Britannia.

Sir Edward's criticisms do not appear to have harmed him in the eyes of the electorate and New Labour may not find it easy to get to the left of him. Even Mr King, the Liberal Democrat candidate, admitted: "Some of the things he said as prime minister would now be vetoed by Tony Blair as too left-wing."