Tories hope for sea-change in once-blue resort

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Indy Politics
Bournemouth is a resort of mixed and powerful emotion for the Conservatives. It was the scene in 1986 of their recovery from the doldrums of Margaret Thatcher's second term when "The Next Moves Forward" conference provided the springboard for her 1987 win.

It was there in 1990 that she dismissed the Liberal Democrats as a "dead parrot" days before they swept Eastbourne in a by-election and weeks before she fell as leader. And it was in May 1991 that the Liberal Democrats ended a century of Conservative control in the once true-blue town, taking control from the Tories to run a minority administration.

Now, a decade on from 1986, it is on Bournemouth and neighbouring Poole that the Tories are pinning their hopes of being able to claim that they have once again turned the corner - wresting back control in a contest which the Liberal Democrats believe will finally give them a majority on the council.

It is a difficult contest to call. Bournemouth has begun to recover from the recession, the Liberal Democrats pointing to pounds 30m of private investment being drawn to the town in recent years. The centre looks brighter. The airport has been sold and redeveloped. Cycle ways, rubbish recycling and closed circuit television display the Liberal Democrats' green credentials and skill at pavement politics while this year the town managed a small cut in the council tax.

But along the beach at once genteel, now down-at-heel, Boscombe, the pier is closed, the crazy golf shut and the lavatories boarded up due to vandalism. The area displays some of the drink, drugs and prostitution problems usually linked to inner cities. Bourne- mouth as a whole is evidently less blue-rinsed than once it was.

The Tories' high hopes are pinned on the elections being all-out for a shadow unitary authority after last year's all-out elections in the town. They are thus defending seats won during the party's worst local government performance - not those taken on the relative high of 1992 which form the core of tomorrow's contest elsewhere.

Added to that, last year Bournemouth bucked the trend - the Tories holding what they held, dashing Liberal Democrat hopes of overall control. No- one is quite sure why. The Tory vote may have reached its bedrock bottom. But the Blair effect may have played its part.

Last year, Labour was the only party to raise its vote in every ward, a performance that produced no gains but leaves Ben Grower, the firmly left-of-centre Labour group leader, hoping for additions to the six seats Labour holds. "A lot of people who voted Liberal just to get the Tories out have become much more confident in the national party and are beginning to come back to us. We don't get the animosity that we saw on the doorsteps in the middle Eighties," he argues.

But some of last year's anger with the Tories appears to have waned as well. David Atkinson, the genial Bournemouth East MP, out canvassing in a ward which looks as though it should be solidly Tory but has three Liberal Democrat councillors, still receives the odd earful. But elsewhere there are smiles and pledges to turn out, offset by a sense that some of these will stay at home, reflecting the private assessment of Conservative agents that the reaction on the doorstep is at best "mixed".

John Millward, the Liberal Democrat leader, finds talk of a Tory revival "very hard to believe". The only real uncertainty, he says, is whether the Labour vote will harden at the Liberal Democrats' expense. "I can't see Labour making in-roads as such," he says, "but the odd hundred votes here and there could be sufficient to let the Tories back in." Brian Mawhinney's best hope in the once true-blue town it seems, may be Tony Blair.

Bournemouth council

No overall control. Liberal Democrat minority administration.

Liberal Democrats 26, Conservative 21, Labour 6, Independents 4. All out.

MPs David Atkinson (C) Bournemouth East. John Butterfill (C) Bournemouth West.