Tory scandals stalk the shires: John Major found people in Leicester reluctant listeners, writes Mary Braid

WHEN John Major abandoned London for Leicester last week he made it known he was looking forward to breathing the 'purer air of the provinces'. Implicit was the notion that the beleaguered head of a scandal-ridden government was sick of a capital rank with rumour spread by the nihilistic chattering classes.

Relief from unrelenting sleaze was sought in the bosom of the party faithful in the more honest shires. Leicestershire was to provide the first in a series of out-of-London opportunities for Mr Major to meet the public and the party rank and file and restore his Government's tarnished image by putting over the good news a cynical capital obstinately ignored.

If the Prime Minister harboured hopes along these lines, he must have been disappointed. For a start, in Leicestershire disgruntled Tories are not in short supply. Last year the Conservative group on Leicester City Council wrote to Mr Major to criticise the Government's general lack of direction, a Tory county councillor came out publicly against the Government's assault on local government, and a prominent local member of the party resigned after 18 years, in protest at the 'mess' into which the Government had sunk.

Far from remaining untainted by the scandals engulfing the Government in the past two months, Leicestershire has had the added interest of the involvement of local MPs. Alan Duncan, the MP who resigned a junior government post after allegations surrounding the purchase of a former council house in Westminster, holds the Rutland and Melton seat and David Ashby, MP for North-west Leicestershire, hit the headlines after admitting he shared a bed with another man on holiday in France, but only to save money.

David Kirkwood, producer of Talk Back, the daily BBC Radio Leicester phone-in, also points out that Michael Dutt, who committed suicide after being criticised over Westminster City Council's policy on council house sales, was a former Conservative candidate for Leicester South. 'People here knew who he was. He had appeared on television a few times,' Mr Kirkwood said. 'We are far from immune to what is going on in London.'

John Florence, Talk Back's presenter, says London's chattering classes have little influence on opinions in Leicestershire. 'Our listeners are disillusioned with politicians anyway. I have never seen them held in such low regard.'

Tory scandals and discontent with government policy had in fact been the staple diet of the hour-long phone-in for weeks. But when listeners got a rare chance on Wednesday to challenge Mr Major himself the results were disappointing. Mr Kirkwood and Mr Florence admit the programme degenerated into 'a PR exercise and media circus'.

Mr Major warned Mr Florence, off-air, that he would not answer questions on the bizarre death of Stephen Milligan. Although the presenter ignored him and Mr Major was forced to comment, the rest of the programme was stilted and dull. The 25 minutes granted to the show meant the programme was more organised and less spontaneous than usual.

Talk Back believes John Major lost as much as it did. 'We did a second programme asking for views on Mr Major's performance,' Mr Kirkwood said. 'People were not inspired. It was like your boss calling a meeting, you expecting him to have something important to say but he hasn't. The best we had was a caller who thought John was an honest, decent bloke.'

The programme attracts its fair share of bigots. During a later discussion on sex and public morals, a homophobic, middle-aged woman phoned in to advise Mr Florence cryptically that 'it is just not the right channel, John, it's unnatural'. Claims from the newspaper columnist Matthew Parris, a homosexual and former Conservative MP, that the Commons is rife with homosexuals prompted callers to demand they be identified so they could decide who not to vote for. But it is adultery that upsets Leicestershire most. The indiscretions of the former Tory ministers David Mellor and Tim Yeo provoked the greatest anger.

'The message we get again and again from listeners is that 'back to basics' is about personal morality and that politicians should give a lead to the nation,' Mr Florence said. 'The notion that politicians' private lives should not be pried into does not wash with the audience. There is definitely this view that if you lie to your wife, you would lie to the country.'

Callers to Radio Leicester's Asian service are, if anything, more scandalised by recent events. 'They talk of hypocrisy and moral corruption in the Government,' said the presenter, Sujata Barot. 'This is the British parliament their parents respected and thought was perfect.'

With local council and European elections looming, Leicester's party workers admit they are not looking forward to trying to convince people on the doorstep to vote Conservative. Betty Turner, 62, a retired personal assistant and lifelong party activist, says some Tory supporters are currently so embarrassed by events they will not even admit their political affiliation.

'The Conservative Party was in the doldrums here before the scandals and they certainly have not helped. There have been so many banana skins it has been almost incredible. Just when you think things cannot get any worse, something else happens.'

At Mr Major's rallying call to party workers last Wednesday, the faithful joked and speculated about just how much worse things could get but no one laughed about it with the Prime Minister. 'You got the feeling the visit was supposed to be a relief for him,' Mrs Turner said. 'And I do feel he got the full support of the rank and file. I think he knows we don't hold him responsible. It is a run of bad luck and people have short memories.'

But Mrs Turner believes the Government should abandon 'back to basics'. 'It has done absolutely nothing for the party and the media have been looking for dirt since it was mentioned.'

A Leicestershire party official admits that in some recent controversies, politicans have only had themselves to blame but argues that the media have it in for Mr Major. Mr Milligan's death, he argues, did not merit the four pages devoted to it by the Daily Mail.

The Conservatives' political disasters have meant mixed blessings for Sudhir Haria, a Tory activist who runs a newsagent's in Leicester city centre. With each scandal his newspaper sales have risen. Still reeling from the shock of yet another exposure, he has found himself on the phone badgering the wholesaler for extra newspapers. The revelation of Tim Yeo's love child brought the greatest boost to business.

'Human nature is human nature, whether you are in Leicester or London,' Mr Haria said. 'People are just as interested in scandal here as they are in London.'

(Photograph omitted)