Huntingdon Tories will be judged on Major's record: The local elections: The backlash against the Conservatives has left its mark in the Prime Minister's backyard. Giles Smith reports

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Indy Politics
THE WOMAN at the tourist information bureau in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, says that when the season picks up her office will be crammed with visitors who want to know where John Major lives.

'If he stood outside his house and signed autographs, we would have quite a tourist attraction on our hands,' she said.

As it is, there is not much to see at Mr Major's home up the road in Great Stukeley - expensive wooden security gates, high wicker fencing, tall trees.

Drive on and you will find a jet fighter mounted dramatically on its wing-tip outside the RAF base and still further up the road at Alconbury, what may well be Britain's only giant, red, flying-saucer- shaped McDonald's. But that's about it.

The tourist board does well here with its 'Cromwell Country' promotion (Oliver Cromwell was born in Huntingdon in 1599): it might have more difficulty selling 'Major's Britain'.

Huntingdon District Council is overwhelmingly Conservative, 41 seats out of 53, as you might expect in the Prime Minister's backyard. But given Mr Major's present popularity, other than among Australian tourists, is this a boon or a bane for the Tory councillors seeking re- election on 5 May? Even here, the backlash leaves its mark.

Last month, the Conservative Club in George Street, Huntingdon, nearly closed when its membership dropped to about 200. Some hasty last-minute recruitment kept it alive. Councillors going from door- to-door, trying to campaign on local issues - traffic, pot-holes, nettle- strewn paths - find themselves beaten with the national stick.

At lunchtime in the Lion, in the village of Buckden, just south of the constituency, Terry Hayward mulls over the problem. He is a Tory councillor defending a healthy majority in an affluent area, but even other Conservative councillors admit that, this year, he is looking rocky against the Liberal Democrat candidate.

'The danger is,' he said, 'that good, experienced local councillors could be voted out of their seats by people simply intent on giving John Major a bloody nose.'

Wynn Roberts, a retired serviceman, believes Mr Hayward will be 'lucky to get in this time' because 'there's such a swell of ill-feeling'.

Mr Hayward's daughter Philippa, a self-employed beauty therapist, supports her father but doubts his party. In her window she has displayed the portion of the campaign poster which reads 'Vote Hayward', but has cut off the strip saying 'Conservative'.

The present administration is campaigning on its record. In Huntingdon's pedestrianised shopping centre, a man with long hair and a plaid shirt tosses a punctured football for an alsatian. There are a few blank shop windows, emptied by the recession, but you would hardly call this a ravaged urban landscape.

The council tax is low, unemployment is down fractionally and so is crime, though hijackers recently commandeered a Silver Spoon sugar lorry while its driver was having a cup of tea in a lay-by off the A14. The vehicle was later found, minus sugar, near Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire.

The surrounding area is dotted with other market towns, comfortable villages, bright fields of rape and endless boating centres in the backwaters of the river Ouse.

The nearby A1 is gradually being widened into a motorway. Many of the area's problems arise not from fighting recession but from coping with expansion. But in St Neots, to the south, the flavour is different.

This is a Liberal Democrat and Labour enclave, forming what one councillor called 'our region's version of the North-South divide' - though, in this case, the north is the affluent, cosy area, while the south is recession-hit, over-stretched, under-serviced.

In St Neots, the buzz-phrase is 'traffic calming'. The roads are thick with pavement extensions, humps, bollards. Sedated cars potter in and out in second gear. Critics of the scheme point out that there was always so much traffic, you could never get out of second gear anyway. Others argue that traffic is successfully reduced. But that only upsets the shopkeepers.

Tim Leader, from the Chamber of Commerce, talks about the deadening effect of empty premises and mentions the rise of 'the kind of shop which sells cheap jeans for four months and then closes down'.

Daisy Seager is campaigning here. She says the first question people ask her is: 'Are you the Conservative.' 'Good,' said one man, when she told him she was Labour. 'I've got my gun ready for when the Conservative comes round.'

She regrets that national factors seem to have swamped the local issues. 'It's a shame. But if that's how we're going to get more Labour councillors then I'm happy,' she said, before tipping back her head and laughing loudly.

Last month, after a vigorous campaign by the Hemingford Phone Box Supporters Club, wearing specially printed T-shirts ('Leave Our Telephone Kiosk Alone'), district councillors threw out British Telecom's proposals to shift Hemingford Grey's solitary telephone box to a new location.

This was bad news for the family whose bedroom and kitchen windows open right on to the box. Marilyn and Roger Mawditt are just completing a large conservatory at the back of their house. 'It's somewhere to get away from the phone box,' Mrs Mawditt said.

The family has been hoping to get it moved for 20 years, to get away from the lorries that pull up alongside it, the marital rows they hear too clearly, the taxi-callers at pub-closing time and the figures lingering by their windows in the dark. Then there was the night the box was vandalised and robbed. The police were outside until 1 am. Shortly before 4 am, the smashing started again. This time it was a BT contractor, who had come along early to fix new glass.

The couple once raised the matter with the Prime Minister at his MP's surgery. Mr Mawditt said Mr Major was 'much more substantial in the flesh', but there was nothing he could do.

This is, in many ways, the archetypal local issue - tiny, yet massively important to those involved and probably insoluble. The Mawditts look worn, as you would after 20 years of being niggled. Last week members of the local parish council called round and offered them, by way of consolation, financial assistance to build a high wall. The Mawditts are reluctant to brick themselves in and shut the village out. But they are tempted.

Back in the Lion at Buckden in the middle of the evening, Mr Hayward orders a pint of bitter. He has been canvassing down the street where his Liberal Democrat opponent lives ('never easy') and the residents have challenged him repeatedly over Mr Major and the state of the country.

The deputy headmaster of the local school stops by on his way out. He asks: 'Has anyone ever suggested part-time traffic lights on the roundabout by the A1?' Mr Hayward looks almost relieved.

(Photograph omitted)

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