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UK Politics

Conservatives helped by expenses scandal in fight to take back former seats

In the third and final part of his series on the Tories' target seats, Brian Brady is on the M5 stretch of the 'golden ribbon', from Birmingham to the West Country

Wednesday afternoon: Kidderminster Hospital. A cluster of outpatients relax on comfortable chairs in their £19m "Treatment Centre".

It is a far cry from 2001, when locals were so concerned about the future of their hospital that they elected an Independent MP to protect it. Dr Richard Taylor, the Independent Kidderminster Hospital and Health Concern candidate who snatched the Wyre Forest seat from Labour – and held on to it four years later – can surely retire safe in the knowledge that he has completed his mission.

Except that the retired consultant rheumatologist has no intention of stepping down. "I've so many battles going on at the moment I'd like to see through," Dr Taylor, 75, said last night.

But marginal seats such as Wyre Forest and others along the "golden ribbon", which winds from the M62 in Yorkshire down the M6 and M5 to the West Country, are key to any party hoping to win the general election.

The Tory onslaught is more than evident on the short walk from Kidderminster station to the town centre: three identical posters show "Danielle from Brighton" proclaiming: "I've never voted Tory before, but we've got to fix our broken society."

The Tories held the semi-rural territory around the towns of Kidderminster, Bewdley and Stourport for almost 40 years until they lost it to Labour in 1997, and Wyre Forest is now high on their list of target seats.

While the Tory candidate, Mark Garnier, conceded that his opponent was "a very hard-working MP", he is bullish: "Wyre Forest was heard loud and clear in 2001, but since then it has been off the main radar screen politically."

Less than 15 miles away, along the A448, lies another seat many Tories see as theirs by right. They have high hopes of taking Redditch, and the furore over the living arrangements and expenses claims of the sitting MP, Jacqui Smith – including a bath plug and two blue movies watched by her husband – have made it virtually impossible for Labour to defend.

The former home secretary admitted: "As the polls stand at the moment, it's more likely that I'll lose my seat than that I won't lose it."

The pre-election campaign has been dominated by expenses. "Guess what one of the main issues is on the doorstep tonight?" the Tory candidate, Karen Lumley, said on her blog, as the revelations came to a head. "Yes, it's our MP's expenses and that bath plug is raised again and again."

Ms Smith's majority has dropped to a precarious 2,128 – Labour's 29th most vulnerable seat – and the Tories need a 2.56 per cent swing to take it.

The Lib Dem candidate, Nicholas Lane, said: "Labour might have fancied their chances of holding on to the seat again, but the expenses thing makes it very difficult. No one needs to make porn and bath plugs a big part of their campaign because it is there on the doorstep."

Redditch, like so many other seats along the "golden ribbon", represents the outer reaches of the Blairite landslide of 1997; traditional Tory possessions that overnight became comfortable Labour redoubts – and remained so for two more general elections.

One of those redoubts is Birmingham Edgbaston. The sitting MP, Gisela Stuart, has had her disagreements with the Labour hierarchy, but her biggest battle of 2010 will be to protect a majority of barely 1,500 votes.

The Tory candidate is from a family steeped in the politics of the city; Deirdre Alden's husband is a city councillor and her son is the parliamentary candidate in Birmingham Erdington. The Ashcroft effect is already an issue, with Ms Stuart complaining that Tory spending meant the campaign was "not a level playing field".

Mrs Alden, who rejects the charge, said: "Our local Labour MP is trying to distance herself from Gordon Brown – she calls herself 'independent-thinking' on her literature – but, at the end of the day, she goes into the lobby and votes with Labour. If people vote for Gisela Stuart, they will end up with Gordon Brown, and people, by and large, don't want Gordon Brown."

The Opposition's message is similar in Bristol, where a national poll late last year suggested Labour would lose all but one seat to the Tories. Although the party has recovered a bit since then, the Bristol North West seat (majority 3,769) being vacated by its retiring MP, Doug Naysmith, remains vulnerable. And since then the new Labour candidate, Sam Townend, has resigned from Lambeth Council after reports that he had claimed some £15,000 in allowances, despite turning up to just two meetings.

"My family has always voted Labour and I will vote for them this time," said Philip Evans, a Bristol cabbie. "I'm just running out of friends who say they are going to do the same. I don't think they can save themselves."