Basildon opens its doors to the big guns

Gordon Brown follows Michael Howard into the town they call the nation's barometer

The welcome was warm and came, inevitably, in the shape of an attractive young woman wearing a white mini-skirt and white high heels. The election campaign had arrived in Essex.

Michael Howard shook her hand and strode confidently into Time nightclub, with its glitzy entrance and tacky, flashing wall lights. The Home Secretary was holding court ostensibly to discuss the club's progressive attitude to drug control.

But, given that it was located in Basildon, traditionally the nation's political barometer and a constituency recently abandoned by David Amess, the sitting Tory MP, the suspicion that he was here to woo the electorate was irresistible.

"It is a very important area for us," he admitted. "The whole of Essex is important and I am very confident we can win here. It would be a rash person who said there is nothing that can be done."

But, with the Tories defending a majority of only 1,480 and with Mr Amess hopping over to the safer seat of Southend West, there was little conviction in Mr Howard's voice.

When it was pointed out to him that there were no Conservatives left on the local council, his response was hardly upbeat. "There is no relationship between local elections and Parliamentary elections," he said. "There are countless examples of where we have low representation on the council, but hold the Parliamentary seat."

The mood in Basildon has undoubtedly changed since the Tories swept to victory there in 1992, a victory that heralded the national success hours later. The parties know the importance of the seat - and they both intend to win it.

As if to ram home the point, Gordon Brown, the Shadow Chancellor, rode into town two hours after Mr Howard left and delivered a blistering speech on the betrayal of Basildon Man.

Reminding them of John Major's promise not to increase VAT, he said: "Within a year, that promise had been broken. Tory promise, Tory betrayal." Then he reminded them of similar broken promises on insurance contributions, mortgage tax relief ... in fact, on 22 tax rises.

"Let me tell Michael Heseltine in terms he might understand," he said. "The Tories are taxing us before breakfast, as soon as we turn the heating on, taxing us before lunch and taxing us before dinner. And before you get up the next morning, we're being taxed all over again."

The audience - including a group who had switched from Tory to Labour - lapped it up.

Geraldine Evans, 51, landlady of The Barge in Vange, was typical of the group. "I have never worked so hard for so little in all my life," she said. "What the Coservatives have done has made me very sad. People don't seem to count for much any more - there are people in Basildon earning between pounds 1.80 and pounds 2.20 an hour. I never believed anyone as moderate as myself could vote Labour. But I've looked at their policies and they're closer to my own beliefs."

Tory stock was indeed low last night as Mr Brown savaged the party's performance during his speech to supporters. He drew gasps when he broke the news of Tim Smith's resignation and went further by making fun of the sitting MP's move eastwards.

"I came here hoping to meet David Amess," he said. "There is a courtesy in the House of Commons that when you visit a constituency of a sitting Tory MP you write him a letter - but mine was returned marked `Return to sender. Gone away.' It seems David Amess is the only Tory candidate in this campaign who has moved closer to Europe ..."

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