Local Council Elections 1994: Bitterness as Tory rebellion lives on: An internal fight between official and unofficial Conservatives is the legacy of the poll tax walkout in West Oxfordshire. Will Bennett reports

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THE WOUNDS left by the defection of 18 Tory councillors over the poll tax four years ago are still clearly visible in West Oxfordshire.

The reverberations of the rebellion reached Westminster. It was a landmark in the political demise of Baroness Thatcher.

The rebels became independents and, together with councillors who never had a party affiliation, still form the largest group on West Oxfordshire District Council. The elections on 5 May will be a test of whether this most patrician of revolts still commands support in a predominantly rural area, or whether normal party allegiances are reasserting themselves.

Several leading rebels are defending seats against Conservative candidates. The man the official Tories would most dearly like to beat is David Walker, who masterminded the walkout in March 1990.

The bitterness that the local Tory hierarchy reserves for Mr Walker, who says he is still a Conservative at 'national level', was revealed when he tried to renew his membership subscription. His cheque was returned accompanied by a curt letter demanding a written declaration of support. 'It appears to be a vendetta and it is sad really that people will not let sleeping dogs lie,' said Mr Walker, a farmer from Minster Lovell, near Witney. He is being challenged by Colin Dingwall, a businessman who owns a night club. The contest is viewed as a clash between the old Tory order and the new.

Political divisions on the council are full of contradictions. The 20 independents do not operate formally as a group yet are sufficiently well organised to have secured all but one of the committee chairmanships. Relations between them and the 14 Conservatives are described as 'not very good' by Chris Fox, chairman of the council and another leading ex-Tory rebel. Yet because they share many of the same opinions, they often vote together against nine Liberal Democrats and six Labour councillors.

According to Mr Fox, West Oxfordshire runs a tight financial ship and the only council tax levied is on behalf of the county council and the parishes. Yet he is quick to condemn the Government for policies that benefit the better-off.

David Evans, the Conservative leader, a Yorkshire-born management and training consultant, is unrepentant about putting up candidates against the independents. 'They are no longer members of the party . . . they opted out.'

With his party defending only three seats this year, Mr Evans hopes to make gains despite the Conservatives' unpopularity nationally. While they cannot win control, the Tories might emerge as the largest party.

The Liberal Democrats, who are well organised in the east around Eynsham, hope to benefit from the divisions and could pick up three seats. Labour is also confident of several gains. But relations between the two parties are not warm.

The political death knell of the ex-Tories may be sounded by local government reorganisation. West Oxfordshire will probably amalgamate with another district and, in a bigger council with larger wards, the independents will face an increasingly uphill struggle against party organisations.

(Photograph omitted)