Sympathy but not much hope for the Goodbye Boy

Michael Streeter finds Beckenham constituents in sombre mood
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The banner stretching across the High Street was advertising a production of Neil Simon's play The Goodbye Girl. "That's not quite right," muttered a Tory supporter as she passed underneath. "It should read The Goodbye Boy."

Her views reflect a feeling in Beckenham that Piers Merchant's days are numbered as an MP after his relationship with a 17-year-old Soho hostess, his political hopes disappearing faster than the hot-cross buns on sale in the town yesterday.

As the constituency association executive prepared for a meeting to decide Mr Merchant's future, there was sympathy but little hope for his future. This prosperous constituency, which last returned a majority of 15,285, seems another world from the lifestyle of the nightclub where Anna Cox plies her trade.

Beryl Walker, normally a Conservative voter, said: "It's a question of lack or loss of respect. People in public office should keep their noses clean." Aaron Williams, 20, thought the MP should get "the benefit of the doubt." But his sister Natalie, 14, was scathing. "He is a married man involved with a 17-year-old girl; he should be setting an example to younger people." Nicholas Schymyck, a Labour sympathiser, chortled: "It's quite amusing. I think he will lose a lot of votes if he stands - anything that helps get rid of them is good."

Outside the West Beckenham Conservative Club, Geoff Glass, a retired surveyor, said he supported the MP, who he believed had been set up. "It's the human-nature factor; you're never going to overcome that. You go to a club, have a couple of drinks and an attractive young girl starts to chat you up. What do you do?"

Another Tory supporter, Edward Corben, also believed the MP's days were numbered. "I would still support him but I think he will be resigning."

A newsagent said Mr Merchant was a popular MP who had been set up by the press and should stay on. "As a woman said to me this morning, if there were no dirty women there would be no dirty men." Sales of the Sun, which broke the story of Mr Merchant's alleged liaison, had been lower than usual, he added.

The MP and his wife, Helen, were not in evidence -they were thought to have slipped away from their home, probably by clambering over a neighbour's wall and into a car.

The association's vice-chairman suggested the meeting at which Mr Merchant will explain himself could not be held before Tuesday. But with Central Office keen to end media speculation about his future, there were growing signs that the association could meet earlier. But there was resentment at what association officials see as a heavy-handed approach from the party hierarchy to press them to decide early.

Charles Priest, a member of the committee, said yesterday: "To hell with Central Office. If they cannot back us we will not back them. It's up to us what we do with our MP." Mr Merchant had his full backing until he had heard the other side of the story.