In search of a polite kind of rebellion
How is the Coalition playing in the Tory shires? Paul Vallely finds out – after a tetchy start
Saturday 15 May 2010
The menu for the forthcoming dinner dance at Altrincham Conservative Club is illuminating. It begins with the semblance of choice. Please specify paté or melon, it announces. But there is no option when it comes to the main course. And the pudding is a classic marriage of contrasting tastes: rhubarb with ginger crumble.
Coalitions are a little like that. There is a choice at the outset. But you have all to want the same thing when it comes to the substance. And you just have to hope that, at the end, the confection of contrasting temperaments and ideologies creates a pleasing balance rather than an unhappy feeling that everything has ended up too fiery, too sugary or leaving a sour taste in the mouth.
Altrincham and Sale West is the constituency of Graham Brady, the Tory MP who is the favourite to become the chairman of the 1922 committee. Normally that job would make him the official shop steward of the Conservative backbenchers. But in a time of coalition it will also make him the watchdog to whom the blue-rinsed shires will look to ensure that an expedient London leadership does not make too many compromises on key Conservative principles.
This was the perfect place to discover whether the Tory faithful are basically at ease, or unnerved, by the business of compromise with the Liberal Democrats, the party they insistent on caricaturing, with anachronistic joviality, as bearded and sandal-wearing.
I had been invited by the club secretary to go along at lunchtime and meet Conservative voters. But when I arrived the club's chairman, Peter Kenyon, came over all cagey. "I don't want to give you my views and it's not appropriate for you to talk to members," he said. I was shown the door and my photographer was bundled out with a discourtesy which was surprising from a party where most of the Cabinet display the smooth good manners which is what parents pay for in an expensive public school.
Still, stop anyone on the street between the club and the market, and it is odds-on they will be a Conservative voter. Graham Brady got more votes than almost all the other candidates put together, which is unsurprising since Altrincham, eight miles south of Manchester city centre, is a place of leafy suburbs where it is not uncommon to see price tags of £1m-plus in estate agents' windows.
These are the most expensive residential streets outside of south-east England, as the presence of the occasional Premiership footballer's home reveals. House prices have held up here better than most places during the recession. The seat has returned a Tory MP since it was created in 1945.
Quite what the officials at the Conservative Club were afraid of was unclear. The first chap I stopped in the street was typical of the responses which followed. "Gordon Brown has gone and that's the main thing," said Derek Ashcroft, 73, a lifelong Tory voter. "As to the coalition, I'll give it the benefit of the doubt just now."
"I'm wary and excited at the same time," said Dr Bill Stephens, a medic on his day off. "I'm pleased the cuts are going to start straightaway. The loss of the lowering of inheritance tax is a concern and I'm not a millionaire by any means. But the Liberals' plan to join the Euro was a boneless idea, I'm pleased that's been dropped. On the whole I'm cautiously optimistic."
There were other concerns. "My husband is in the import/export business," said Susan Bromley, a teacher, "and he fears a coalition won't be good for confidence among the people he does business with abroad. But I don't mind so much now the Liberals' immigration amnesty has been shelved. I'd have preferred a Conservative majority but this is still better than a Lib-Labour government."
Others have no such reservations. "I don't think Conservative policies will get watered down," said Ray Sharples, a fishmonger near the market. "I'm glad there's a coalition. The more ideas they have the better. And I like the idea of making students pay more for education."
Admittedly Altrincham's Tories have some rum ideas when it comes to how a coalition would work. "On energy we need to combine green and nuclear power," said Chris Candish, a councillor in Hale at the poshest end of this posh constituency. "We have to be firm on that and Chris Huhne [the Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary] will have to listen. A coalition must be a conversation, not just saying, 'I'll handle this and you do that.' He'll have to submit his proposals to the whole Cabinet for approval." Presumably Tory ministers would do the same? "It's important to take the Liberals with us," Councillor Candish replied, a tad ambiguously.
Perhaps Conservatives here are so relaxed because of the character of the local MP. Graham Brady served as a shadow minister under four Conservative leaders before resigning in 2007 in protest at David Cameron's opposition to grammar schools. Much of the constituency is in the borough of Trafford which has retained the grammar schools and tops school league tables as a result. The system has the overwhelming support of local parents, as well as Mr Brady who is himself the product of Altrincham Grammar School, probably the best boys' state school in the area.
"He resigned from the front bench over this," said another local councillor Sean Anstee, "which shows he's there to represent the interests of his constituents and not there to further his own career. He has principles he sticks to, which is why his vote went up this election. We know we can rely on Graham to keep a very close eye on the Government, which is why he will make a good chairman of the 1922 committee. He will make sure Conservative principles aren't left behind."
If there is to be a grassroots Conservative revolt over the compromises of coalition, it isn't visible in Altrincham.
At least not yet.
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