Kenneth Clarke has already said new NHS charges are 'not on', but that has failed to reassure the pensioners, who make up 34 per cent of this south Dorset seat, whose fears have been fuelled by Liberal Democrat and Labour campaigning.
Mr Clarke will find it difficult to regain the trust of the Tory voters, who are in revolt at the Government's broken promises since the general election. Their main protest is over Norman Lamont's decision to impose 8 per cent VAT on fuel charges.
Rob Hayward, the Conservative candidate, encountered more hostility against VAT on fuel yesterday when he met a dozen retired true-blue Tories in the oak-beamed detached house of a former consul on the fringe of the New Forest.
He told one senior ex-civil servant that Mr Clarke could not announce the compensation for those on low incomes before the Autumn Budget because 'the allegation would be made it is a by-election bribe'.
The Tories may need the bribe. The pensioners are repeatedly telling Tory canvassers that, living on fixed incomes, they cannot afford the VAT.
Diana Maddock, the Liberal Democrat candidate, is fighting the by- election on a policy of switching VAT to income tax, in addition to 1p in the pound for education. That is popular with pensioners, who are untaxed, but is likely to be exploited by the Chancellor, who is expected to put some fight today into the Tory campaign.
The Tories are finding it difficult to get off the defensive, and took the rare decision not to hold a press conference yesterday. Last night Mr Hayward went for rugby training on a ground sodden by a week of steady rain. The only firm ground he found at the 'at home' was over his support for hanging. 'Thank goodness for that,' one of the elderly guests, said.
Underlying the Tory difficulties is the 'Major factor'. Many former Tory supporters are saying they are deserting because of the lack of grip by the Government. One disgruntled Tory voter he canvassed, a karate expert with a ponytail, said: 'I don't know how I'll vote. I'm a Thatcherite. I don't like Major and his cronies.'
John Smith, the Labour leader, joined a group of pensioners for tea at Christchurch quay. His dilemma is that Labour remains a bogey to Tories in the South and West. Alan Duncan, a Tory MP, tried to gate-crash Mr Smith's photo-opportunity, but one of the Tory campaign managers put his head in his hands and said: 'Oh no. That's all we need . . . They are not the enemy.'
1992 result: R Adley (Con) 36,627 (63.5 pc); D Bussey (Lib Dem); 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