County council polls: Tory own goals could cost party outright victory: Leicestershire

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Indy Politics
Conservatives in Leicestershire need to make only one net gain in tomorrow's county council elections to win overall control but they are making it difficult for themselves.

In one marginal ward, Billesdon, a mix-up by the local association meant that the Tory nomination papers failed to be delivered on time, so it is a straight fight between Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

In another marginal, Beaumont Leys, the Tories face the danger of a split vote. Alan Eykelbosch won the seat for the Conservatives in a 1991 by- election, beating Labour by 129 votes, and reversing a majority of 374 in 1989. Mr Eykelbosch has since come out as a homosexual. He has been deselected as the Tory candidate though not, the party insists, for being homosexual, but because of 'errors of judgement. We did not think he was a suitable candidate because of unfortunate adverse publicity,' said Warwick Brown, the chairman of the West Leicestershire Tories. 'There is no problem about his homosexuality.' He is standing under the description of 'Conservative county councillor' and is opposed by Darren Platts, 'the Conservative Party candidate' as well as Labour and Lib Dem candidates. Mr Eykelbosch said: 'I am still a member of the Conservative Party. The reasons they give for my deselection are crap. I am not prepared to discuss my private life, but it (deselection) is to do with my homosexuality . . . The fact that I am homosexual is nobody's business and I am not ashamed of it . . . I have been asked to stand by vast members of my local branch, and by members of the electorate, and I have extremely good support.'

Another closely fought seat is Castle Donington. At a by- election in 1991 the Tory and Labour candidates polled the same number of votes. The deputy returning officer drew lots and the decision went in favour of Labour. But the decision was challenged, and the Election Court ruled in favour of the Tories, giving them a one-vote majority.

Altogether there are seven marginal seats, some decided by only a handful of votes in the last elections. The council is hung, with the Tories holding 42 seats, Labour 31 and the Liberal Democrats 11. Though there is no formal pact between Labour and the Lib Dems they have been largely acting together. Yet, curiously, Labour and the Tories have agreed among themselves to take the chairmanship of the council, on a rota basis. But the Tories decline to put up any of their people to chair committees.

Robert Osborne, the leader of the Conservative group, says they have a realistic chance of overall control. 'There is a fair number of marginals where we are extremely close.' On the ground, the key issue for them is law and order. 'We want more uniformed bobbies on the beat, and we are very concerned about juvenile crime. One-quarter of all crime is committed by persistent offenders aged 13 to 17.

'We want to place them in secure accommodation but the other parties have an ideological stance against this type of provision in Leicestershire.'

Labour and the Liberal Democrats reject the charge of being soft on crime. They say that as a result of the budget - pushed though by the Tories after the sudden death of a Labour councillor - the Tory need to make pre-election cuts and keep the council tax down will lead to a pounds 1.5m reduction in police resources.

Labour too thinks it has a chance of taking overall control. It identifies some 14 seats which it thinks are winnable, but it would require a huge change for that to work.

'Not a cat's chance in hell' is how emeritus professor Robert Pritchard, the Lib Dems' leader, sums up the Tory chance of winning overall control. 'The Tory vote is quite soft. I think many of their voters are going to stay at home and any shift will be in our favour. We will be disappointed if we do not make between 5 and 10 gains.'

One issue that the candidates do not appear to making much of is the case of Frank Beck, the social worker who is serving five life sentences after being convicted in 1991 of sexually abusing children in his care. A recent report exonerated councillors from blame.