Choppy times ahead in clear blue waters

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Indy Politics
The daffodils may be bobbing in the brisk spring breeze, but they bob in neat and tidy rows in Gorsey Road, Wilmslow. Two cars to a drive, its large, smart houses and crisply-kept lawns could be the heart of Cheshire Torydom, the natural power base of Neil Hamilton MP.

He certainly still has supporters. Keith Wallworth, who had his own building business until retirement, considers Mr Hamilton "a marvellous man". "Don't believe anything about sleaze," he says. "It's propaganda by the others. He calls here and canvasses his vote and we've had a number of good discussions. He's an excellent man for the country."

Pam Whent, 60, a former teacher, says Mr Hamilton is "wonderful" at supporting local organisations. More to the point, she would do anything to stop the Labour Party getting in. It is policies and the party that counts, not the person. "As far as cash-for-questions - I'm sure there are lots of people who have had perks and nobody knows about it."

This may be true. Unfortunately, it may not help the sitting MP for Tatton. The elderly man of tweed appearance walking his dog said he would consider the sleaze question "very seriously".

At her front door, an elderly woman considers for a moment and then said: "It's not assisted, shall we say". Even the woman who works for the Conservative Party admits that Mr Hamilton may have been "naive".

"But I don't honestly believe he did anything and I believe the majority of people will vote for him. I think he's a person of integrity."

Some of the neighbours will take a lot of convincing.

A "life-long supporter" in a smart red dress says she cannot imagine voting Labour but she might well abstain. "I don't know him personally, but I feel that even if these allegations are not true he was an extremely foolish person to get into the situation he's in."

A 47-year-old housewife pauses from the cleaning to consider this. "If Mr Hamilton is the candidate I'll vote for him," she says. "But I'm not voting for him but for the party. It wouldn't upset me if it was somebody else."

Meanwhile, pressure grew on other Conservative MPs involved in the cash- for-questions allegations yesterday after a Conservative councillor publicly called on one of them to explain his actions.

Peter Mills, a member of Cleethorpes Conservative Association, warned that he would call on the local MP, Michael Brown, to stand down unless he could explain away the allegations being made against him.

Mr Mills said that if he was dissatisfied with the MP's response, he would seek a different candidate for the association's adoption meeting on 11 April. He added: "It is difficult for me to see what response would make me happy."

Sir Gordon Downey has still to deliver his verdict on Mr Brown. He admitted last year that he had taken pounds 6,000 for lobbying work for US Tobacco in the late 1980s but had not registered the payment for several years.

Mr Mills said he believed that there were others in the association who shared his view but they were rank-and-file members rather than office-holders.

However, many senior local Conservatives are thought to believe that the colourful Mr Brown is still their best hope of retaining a seat where the notional Conservative majority has shrunk following boundary changes. The Labour Party needs only a swing of 6 per cent in its favour in order to win.

The constituency association chairman, Brian Knight, said that Mr Brown was an excellent MP and the association had full confidence in him. "I fully expect him to be adopted as our MP," he said.

It emerged yesterday that private polls taken in Beaconsfield had suggested that the Conservatives could have faced a sensational defeat, in a constituency where they had a majority of nearly 24,000 in 1992, had Tim Smith remained as the MP.

Labour's prospective candidate, Alastair Hudson said: "Our polling could find no one who was prepared to vote for Tim Smith. If he had stayed on, they faced defeat here - they were looking at meltdown."

The Tories were clearly worried that mass abstentions would also hit local elections on 1 May, in the only Conservative-run county council - Buckinghamshire - in the country.

The Conservative Association chairman, Deidre Holloway, denied that they had been facing defeat but admitted: "Certainly there would have been a greatly reduced majority. The constituency was divided and I think a lot of people would have abstained."

A new candidate is expected to be selected next Saturday.

The party now says that it is looking for a "safe pair of hands". One senior source said: "We could do without any more problems here."