European Elections: Tornado Currie is keeping her fingers crossed: A tale of two women: the Conservatives' media queen and novice European - Labour's unsung star rising dramatically in Strasbourg

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The Independent Online
A TORNADO in pink crepe is now tearing through the Euro- constituency of Bedfordshire and Milton Keynes. For 14 months Edwina Currie has been ravaging the place each morning, returning in the afternoon to the House of Commons. But now the campaign is official the storm is fully unleashed.

'My usual contact rate,' she told Chris Foyle of Air Foyle at Luton Airport on the first day of the official campaign 'is about 200 people an hour.'

A large smile, a short burst of intense interest in the voter's occupation and journey to work, the immediate use of the first name - 'Hello George]' - and Mrs Currie quickly moves on to the next potential convert. She does seem genuinely to enjoy meeting the public, but the speed of the operation leaves some cynics in its wake.

'Shame I live outside the boundary,' said one worker in a Luton air traffic company after she passed on. 'That was one and a half minutes wasted.'

But the Euro-missionary zeal is necessary. The seat is very much a marginal. Boundary changes to the old South Bedfordshire constituency have improved Conservative chances by removing Stevenage and its Labour voters. But in 1989 that would still only have delivered a Tory majority of 10,000, a figure unlikely to survive the present climate of Conservative disillusion.

To counter this Mrs Currie is playing the card of personal fame. 'I think,' she told a public meeting on Monday night, smiling flirtatiously, 'people in this country may feel more secure if the person representing them was a familiar face like my own.' The 'Edwina for Europe' campaign team, decked out in a uniform of boaters and blue sweatshirts, says that in the High Street people have been queueing for a word or an autograph. At her public meeting in Luton, however, only 25 people turned up.

In Mrs Currie's case fame may be something of a loose cannon. 'She mustn't give us any more wee eggs,' said a Scottish Luton voter called Jimmy, in the town centre. 'We want duck eggs] She's got a lot of mouth, but that's about all she's got.'

Her voice is much lighter than Lady Thatcher's and her northern accent helps. Mrs Currie does not sound hectoring, but she is a little addicted to lecturing. And where Margaret Thatcher used the royal we, Mrs Currie uses the possessive I. At Air Foyle Ltd she met a Ukrainian. 'I have a lot of Ukrainians in the city of Derby,' she told him. Later on, miners in Derby were referred to as 'my pitmen'. Her debating talent and parliamentary experience as MP for Derbyshire South are advantages in her campaign, but she cannot refer to them without reminding voters that her loyalties may be split. If she wins she will hold down both jobs until the General Election.

On Monday night she cited Ian Paisley as another MP with a Euro seat, perhaps unaware that the latest survey had shown him to be the worst attender at the European Parliament among British MEPs. Her Labour opponent and nearest rival, Eryl McNally, MP's daughter, schools inspector and county councillor, has a less distinguished CV than Mrs Currie, but she has lived locally for 28 years and is free to be a full-time Euro-MP.

While Mrs Currie was in Luton, Mrs McNally was in Leighton Buzzard. 'We met Conservatives who have no intention of voting for Edwina,' she said. 'Some are fed up with the Government and some dislike her profile. I'm not ridiculously optimistic, but I'll be very surprised if we don't win.'

Certainly at Mrs Currie's public meeting the only heckler was not only a Conservative but the secretary in the local ward. 'Are you against closer links with Europe?' demanded Betty Williamson, wanting to know Mrs Currie's views on a Euro-currency. 'Our sovereignty is what matters to me.'

Mrs Currie said she would consult her electorate when the issue arose. Mrs Williamson said she would vote for her from loyalty, but she spent the rest of the meeting giving Euro-sceptic interjections from the back. 'I think they should blow up the Channel Tunnel,' she said later, 'so long as no one got hurt'.

The meeting finished half an hour late at 9.30pm. Mrs Currie went off to canvass in a local pub. Every second counts. In one pause in the whirlwind's path Chris Foyle asked Mrs Currie how she thought it was going. 'Fingers crossed,' Mrs Currie said.

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