Tory Crisis: The seat that Major can't afford to lose: Stephen Castle reports from Christchurch, whose by-election may give Tories yet another shock

IN A ROAD of uniform modern houses and bungalows in Christchurch, Dorset, the one belonging to Major Edward Ruston, MC, is not hard to find: it has a full-length flagpole flying the Union Jack.

'Obviously I support the Conservative Government,' said Major Ruston, a local borough councillor, last week. But, he adds, 'they should get a hold of this country'. He believes that the party can win the forthcoming by-election - 'we have a superb agent' - but only if the Government keeps out of it. 'We don't want any of those Cabinet ministers down here.'

It is a measure of John Major's plight that anybody should think it remotely possible that the Government could lose this serene and scenic constituency - the Tories' 15th safest seat in the country. Yet, according to a poll in last week's Mail on Sunday, the Conservatives' 23,015 majority could turn into a 7,000 Liberal Democrat majority. So apprehensive are ministers that some want to delay the by-election until late July (the predicted dates, until now, have been 8 or 15 July) in the hope that, with Tory MPs on their summer holidays, few will make trouble over the result.

Christchurch is famed for several things - its 900-year-old priory, the first ever Bailey bridge, and the country's only tricycle museum - but political revolution is not one of them. 'We have never been a rabble-rousing constituency,' said Councillor David Fox, a Conservative loyalist and former mayor. 'If you look up the last half-dozen Conservative Party conference handbooks, you will find no resolutions from us.'

Politics is almost exclusively in the Tory mould. There are, for example, no Liberal Democrats, let alone Labour politicians on Christchurch borough council (confusingly, the borough composes only part of the constituency which also ranges into East Dorset) and opposition comes from various independents.

But this model of Toryism faces two formidable threats. The first is from a protest vote against a Government hit by leaks about possible spending cuts, and by last week's resignation speech from Norman Lamont. The second is from a resurgence of Liberal Democrat support in the South, witnessed in the county council elections. As one rather defeatist former Conservative minister put it last week: 'The game's up in the South of England and the county council elections proved it. The Liberal Democrats are now the party of the South. Think of all those powerful Liberal Democrat women striding in and taking over town halls.'

Though the Tories lost control of Dorset County Council in last month's elections, they held all the county seats in the Christchurch borough. To win the by- election, however, the Liberal Democrats need a smaller swing than they achieved at Newbury, also last month.

Unemployment in the borough is higher than the national average at 11.6 per cent, swelled by redundancies from one of the largest employers, Siemens Ples sey Systems, which has suffered from the national contraction in defence contracts. But, probably more important than the jobless are the over-65s who make up 34 per cent of the population. It is, according to one Conservative, a town of 'retired colonels and sun-tanned pensioners'; to another, 'Costa Geriatrica'. However, the retired are drawn disproportionately from the professional classes and form an active and articulate part of the community. Many have been hit hard by the cut in interest rates which has slashed income from savings by half. Even those unaffected have not appreciated suggestions that the Government might means-test pensions or remove their exemption from prescription charges. The addition of VAT to heating bills has gone down even worse.

Councillor Fox is confident, arguing that the NOP opinion poll puts the Liberal Democrats in the unenviable position of being the favourites yet having to overturn a huge Tory majority. Councillor Eric Spreadbury, known as 'Mr Christchurch' in deference to his 33 years as a Tory councillor, is also optimistic despite the goings on in Parliament, where MPs on both sides seem to be interested only 'in slating each other'.

But, in a seat represented until his death by the free-thinking Robert Adley, not all the party's councillors toe the line as faithfully. Major Ruston has harsh words for ministers. 'I deplore the way they are all at each other's throats. I deplore the disunity. They ought to remember that we represent people and that politics is about people. They will not listen to people and if they do listen, they don't hear. Ministers who do not react to what they know is right should be sacked.'

Michael Portillo, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, is one of those whom Major Ruston would axe. He does not like suggestions that retired people should be charged for their prescriptions and have their pensions means-tested. The Government should 'hit the fat cats rather than the pensioners . . . I would sooner pay an extra penny on income tax than hit retired people.'

The issue of VAT on heating and cuts to the welfare state looks set to dominate the campaign and has featured in meetings held by the Tory candidate, Robert Hayward. The choice of Mr Hayward, former MP for Kingswood in Bristol and the party's leading statistical and psephological expert, has buoyed the Tories nationally, especially since two former ministers declined to be interviewed for the seat, deciding it was something of a poisoned chalice.

With an effective full-time agent, Judy Jamieson, and a solid party organisation, the Tories have a big advantage over the Liberal Democrats who have yet to establish an office in Christchurch town. Historically the Liberal Democrats have concentrated on areas outside the main Tory centre in Christchurch town, regarded as the bastion of local Conservatism. In a departure from normal practice their candidate, Diana Maddock, is not from the constituency but from nearby Southampton, where she teaches. Labour, whose vote is likely to be squeezed, have yet to select.

Two days after his selection at a meeting that lasted three and a half hours, held in stifling heat, Mr Hayward was in sanguine mood in the more relaxed surroundings of the Ducking Stool tearooms. Sensibly, but in defiance of Conservative Central Office style, he referred to his objectives 'if', rather than 'when' he becomes the local MP. But he felt confident enough to distance himself from his predecessor, a well-known critic of rail privatisation, saying: 'I am not a transport expert but I would support rail privatisation.'

Mr Hayward is a safe pair of hands. But on spending cuts he, like ministers in London, cannot rule any measures in or out. Apparently no one in Christchurch had yet asked the Conservative candidate about the Tory leadership crisis, the day after Mr Lamont's resignation bombshell.

Perhaps that is because people in the constituency are really rather polite. Scratch the surface and it is clear that most Tory voters are far from content. In front of the priory, a retired Post Office worker, Mike Poore, said the Government could not hide behind the world recession when they have been in power for 14 years. He concluded: 'The Conservative candidate is not from here, he's from Bristol, so there's no local connection. I honestly think this lady from Southampton could do something.

'The Liberal Party has a good chance because of all these proposals . . . about pensions and the health service.' And Mr Major? 'He is not a presence. I don't feel he is really cut out for the cut and thrust of Parliament. When you watch him performing there he seems to be cut to pieces.' Mr Poore, like a number of those who backed the Tories last time, will be voting Liberal Democrat.

(Photographs omitted)

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