Him? No use for his face here

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GREAT STUKELEY is an unpretentious village, one that could almost be described as grey. It has a shop, a small hotel, and a pub, The Three Horseshoes - a modern affair with a long bar and customers with even longer memories. One lunchtime this week Charlie Lavender and true blue William Sparrow were leaning over their pints of bitter and considering Him.

'I've been here 15 years,' said Charlie Lavender. 'I've never seen Him.'

'This landlord's been here 18 months. He hasn't seen Him,' said William Sparrow. 'Screaming Lord Sutch has been in more.'

'Aye,' said Charlie Lavender. 'Good lad, Lord Sutch. I like him.'

'How long's He been here now?' asked William Sparrow, turning to a lone man who had entered the bar.

'Too long,' said the spare man, and he laughed bitterly.

A few hundred yards up the road from The Three Horseshoes, on the very edge of the village, stands John Major's house, cut off from human view by thick rows of trees, dotted by security cameras and lined by wire. Two high wooden gates stand at its entrance. Outside, that day, stood a van containing two large dogs and, outside that, a policeman with a large gun, keeping careful watch over the household and, judging by the Times reports, guarding Norma's freezer full of shepherd's pies from her thin and lonely husband.

Michael Heseltine's house has a long drive to keep him out of touch with public opinion. Mr Major's drive is shorter, but recent events have shown that it achieves the same purpose.

The spare man in the bar said that Britain's classless Prime Minister had, in his four years in Great Stukeley, visited the pub once, on election night. 'I was in the RAF 20 years,' he said. 'Basically I'm a Conservative. I voted for the party. Not for him. He's representative of nothing. The country's being run by a money man. Any company taken over by money men and accountants lands in Carey Street in two years. They only look at the bottom line. They're not worried about people.'

He had, he said, come across Mr Major on occasion. 'He's an affable person up front, but ask him any questions and he wriggles like hell,' he said. He put down his drink and looked at it sourly. 'He's cost me even more than my divorce,' he said.

Great Stukeley is a village composed largely of small bungalows and the retired. They have seen, like the rest of Huntingdon, a larger fall in property prices from the peak - more than 40 per cent - than anywhere else in the country. Pamela Simpson, of Lines Estate Agents in Huntingdon, showed me the details of a five-bedroom house in the village that had started at pounds 225,000 and sold for pounds 170,000. 'I think his house will have gone down, too,' she said.

Mr Major's house was on offer for pounds 345,000 in 1988, but the thought that he has suffered a proportional drop is not enough to console his neighbours. At the village's only shop I asked what they thought of Him and the place burst with laughter. One woman silently turned down her thumb. 'No comment,' said the man behind the counter, still laughing.

'He wouldn't dare put his head above the parapet here,' said John Meades, picking up his purchase. Mr Meades, who runs a computer repair business in the area employing 36 people, is a past Conservative voter. 'I always gave a donation. Now even secure businesses are under pressure here,' he said. 'You might as well not have an MP. I wrote to him when my company achieved British Standard this year. I got the standard response: 'It's a possibility he might be available to visit you next year.' If John Major phoned me in person now and offered to be in a photo, I'd say no. I couldn't use his face in a promotion.'

Two miles away in Huntingdon the high street shows, in its blank windows and 'For Sale' signs, the ravages of the recession. Similar scenes have been seen before in Huntingdon's long history. On the wall of the Church of All Saints, next to the small town's pleasant market square, a tombstone preaches the moral tale of Thomas Jetherell, malter and corn merchant, who died in the town on 22 June 1774.

'Though a Bankruptcy brought his conduct for a while under a cloud his religion inspired him with sentiments at last to dissipate it - who chose rather to leave his relatives in want than transmit to them a patrimony of malediction - Go thou, and do likewise.'

Bankruptcy is a little too modern a subject in the square now, and malediction is rife. 'Trade here is the lousiest you could get, the last couple of years,' said Alan Watson, selling lampshades and cushions from his stall. 'Him? He's never seen, except for elections.'

Close by another pair of stallholders ('Don't name us - it'll just give us grief') said their trade in clothing was down 50 per cent on last year. 'We've lost two shops,' the man said. 'We've had to move out of our house into a cheaper one. Fifteen years we've been in business. It used to be really buzzing. There's only this stall to lose now.

'He can't keep his word. Whatever he promises he backs down on. I've always voted Conservative. Never again.'

In 1989 John Major opened the Dog and Bone, further down the high street. I looked in to see if this event was commemorated on the wall. 'You're joking,' said one of the regulars. 'That was when he was a nice guy. If we had a picture up now, it would be one from Spitting Image.'

Not all Mr Major's neighbours have turned against him. None thought he was doing well, but a few said defensively that nothing better was possible in an international recession. The Prime Minister rejoices in a majority of 36,230, which is why, of course, he does not need to drink in his local pub, call back at the Dog and Bone, or be seen in the market square. If he minced Norma and added her remains to the stock in her freezer, Mr Major would still be re- elected as Huntingdon's MP.

Still, he would do well to remain behind his security systems for a few weekends. Tempers are running as high as they ever reach in those flat lands.

'He's too inexperienced,' snorted an old lady in the Methodist church, whose discussion of crochet work over tea and biscuits I interrupted. 'I'm told by those who know that he's a very nice man - but he can't cope. Wobbly] You know, if he was at the road end, I wouldn't walk down.'

(Photograph omitted)