Rebel MP's followers sing a little out of tune

NOTHING stops the Wednesday night Sing-along-a-Tory party in Northampton's Conservative Club. Under the framed icon of lead vocalist John Major, and displaying all the harmony of a party conference standing ovation, the tuneful faithful belted out their favourites. Nobody seemed to notice that last week's rendition of a Jim Reeves classic was a touch topical: 'Let's pretend that we're together . . . and darling, he'll have to go.'

As the piano tinkled out 'Welcome to my world, won't you come on in', one constituency association officer began reflecting on a week that for the first time in 30 years saw a Tory MP, their MP, calling in the Commons for the resignation of a Conservative Prime Minister.

Embarrassed he's-a-rebel- but-we-love-him smiles accompanied many comments about Tony Marlow, MP for Northampton North, by the association secretary, Judith Clowes. But she appeared genuinely worried. 'Something needed to be said. But he chose such an awful place and time to say it.'

Sixty telephone calls were made to the Northampton North association office on Wednesday morning. 'Delighted from North Devon' offered Mr Marlow support. The 'irate homosexual from Esher', who had complained over Mr Marlow's stance on the reduction of age of sexual consent debate, announced angrily: 'It's me again, and he's done it again, he's done it again.'

The majority of messages, however, backed the MP's latest rebellious proclamation. Likewise, a telephone poll carried out by the Northampton evening newspaper showed 51 per cent agreeing with their MP that Mr Major should immediately order the removal van. It was also difficult to find a market stallholder who thought Mr Marlow had got it wrong.

Those who 'knew Tony', said Mrs Clowes, thought it was only a matter of time before he 'said something'. On Tuesday, Tony said it. Following the Government's inability to deliver on new voting rules for an enlarged European Union, Antony Rivers Marlow told his boss, John Major: 'Why don't you stand aside and make way for someone else who can provide the party and the country with direction and leadership?' He claimed to speak for 60-70 per cent of Tory MPs.

At the bar of the club, Phil Larratt, leader of the Conservatives on Labour-controlled Northampton Borough Council, admitted his party 'can't go on changing their leader every time there's differences'. But secretly, what was his gut reaction? In a split second he said: 'We should get rid of him'.

Mr Larratt, on the Tory right, would like to see Portillo or Lilley at Number 10. 'But the right are gradually warming to Michael Heseltine. He's shown leadership qualities.' And the 54-year-old Sandhurst and Cambridge-educated Marlow? 'Well, he's supported the council, and the association has supported his views on Europe. He's respected, known, for opening his mouth.'

There were mostly nods and smiles over the labels their MP had attracted since entering the Commons in 1979. Maverick. Unguided missile. Tory Rebel. Extreme Right. Euro- sceptic. The Tory Dennis Skinner. But most added: 'He's a very, very good constituency MP'. The usual routine for Mr Marlow, according to Mrs Clowes, is to finish his fortnightly surgery and then 'just pick one street and go knock on doors, every door'.

The Northampton North constituency, midway between London and Birmingham, and within 100 miles of half the country's population, has a slim 3,908 Tory majority. 'It's always been a fight,' said Mrs Clowes. 'You've got to work to get the vote out.'

The 1968 New Town status of Northampton attracted vital new business to the old shoe capital of England. Although mass manufacturing in shoes has now shifted to the Far East, replacement industry and commerce has helped to keep Northampton's unemployment below national levels. Both Northampton seats are Tory. But the description of the town as 'natural' or safe Conservative is rarely heard.

Doing some early squeezing of palms in the constituency this week was the Tory MEP Anthony Simpson. The Euro-elections next month, everyone acknowledges, will be close for Mr Simpson. The outburst of his Westminster counterpart, he said, did him no favours.

'Sure,' one party worker says, 'Tony will be out there campaigning for Anthony. But what the hell use is he?'

In 1992, when the memory of Mr Marlow's attack (then the first) on Mrs Thatcher almost two years earlier was still fresh in constituency members' minds, there were moves to de-select him. But few in the association think he will have trouble getting adopted again - if he wants to be. But there are rumours in the association that their MP has already dropped hints that he will not be seeking re-election.

For those dissatisfied with Mr Marlow, his quiet withdrawal would be a godsend. Sitting in a self-imposed splinter group away from the singalong throng, three jeans-and-T-shirted Tory gentlemen in their mid-30s, unwilling to give their names, said: 'Marlow is a madman.' They had been party members for 15 years or so. They had always voted Tory. 'But not next time if Marlow stands.' Why? 'What's the damn point? He's a bloody independent.'

Opposite the Tory club in St George's Avenue, Mr Larratt points to the huge open fields that during the summer host the largest balloon festival in Europe. Balloons everywhere, he says. And, someone points out, lots and lots of hot air. 'Oh, you won't use that, will you?' he asks.

(Photograph omitted)

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