The businessmen presented Kenneth Clarke with a shopping list of demands, including a cut in interest rates, to help their businesses to recover from the recession.
They met behind closed doors in a hotel, and Mr Clarke said afterwards that it had been 'a good meeting'. But some of the businessmen emerged saying that they were now considering voting Liberal Democrat or abstaining, as a protest. The Liberal Democrats said Mr Clarke's failure to do a 'walkabout' showed that the Conservatives were in trouble.
Ian Penny, 30, who runs a haberdashery shop in the town, said: 'There is no sign of the green shoots of recovery here. People want to see more confidence in the Government. It is going from one crisis to another.' He had voted Conservative but was unsure which way he would vote in the by-election on 29 July. Mr Clarke had offered no compromises.
The Tories need to secure the support of the traders, important opinion-formers in the town, to hold on to the 23,015 majority that is under threat from the Liberal Democrats. They were upset when Sir Norman Fowler, the party chairman, said he was unable to meet them at the time he launched the by-election campaign. Yesterday's meeting with the Chancellor was an attempt to patch up the damage done by Sir Norman.
The businessmen urged Mr Clarke to introduce a lower tier of interest rates for businesses; postpone increases in the uniform business rate (UBR); do more for the local small aeroplane industry; and remove the exemptions from UBR and VAT for charity shops.
One of the traders' leaders said the charity shops were ruining businesses with unfair competition. There were four in the high street in Christchurch and eight in another part of the constituency. 'The Chancellor was surprised we took that view and said it was not a view he could express in the Commons. He would get thrown out on his ear,' he said.
The businessmen, who are organising a larger protest meeting with the candidates next week, are also angry that so far the campaign has been dominated by the issue of VAT on fuel, and directed at pensioners.
1992 ELECTION: R Adley (Con) 36,627 (63.5 per cent); D Bussey (Lib Dem) 13,612 (23.6); A Lloyd 6,997 (12.1); J Barratt (Nat Law) 243 (0.4); A Wareham (Raving) 175 (0.3). Con maj, 23,015. Electorate, 71,469. Turn-out, 80.9 per cent.Reuse content