By Friday morning, Christchurch is expected to have elected its first Liberal since 1906. It is a town that is quintessentially Conservative, but, from its rhododendron-ringed bungalows to its ranch-style homesteads, the Tory voters are preparing to do the unthinkable and vote against the Government. On the front steps of the King's Arms, commandeered by the Tories for the by-election campaign, a Conservative official attributed the impending defeat to a protest vote. 'They are saying they will not vote for us this time, but they will vote Conservative in the general election.'
An ICM poll at the weekend suggested that voters would not swing back at the general election, but it is hard to believe Christchurch will be anything other than Tory in the future. Its Conservative association may not be Thatcherite - the former MP Robert Adley, whose death caused the by-election, was not one of her fans. But the voters are avowed supporters of Baroness Thatcher, and would like to bring her back, along with hanging and national service.
The Liberal Democrats have had even more false dawns than by-election victories. However, they detect a changing mood in Christchurch, which is also being reported back to the Government by Tory MPs right across the South of England. Canvassers are finding a cultural change among Tory voters who are prepared to change the allegiances of a lifetime. And Margaret Beckett, Labour's deputy leader, said yesterday that the old hostility to Labour in Tory towns such as Christchurch had gone. The warning signs were clear from the results of the county council elections in May, when Tory-controlled counties were reduced from 16 to one - Buckinghamshire. The Liberal Democrats won outright control of Cornwall, Somerset and the Isle of Wight. They are now the largest party on eight southern county councils. Labour, too, won more seats in the region, suggesting that it is slowly recovering from its status as the 'bogey' of the Tory heartlands.
Those results sent a chill through southern Conservative MPs. The West Country group of Tory MPs, horrified at the loss of council seats in constituencies such as Taunton, met in private at Westminster and made it clear to the Prime Minister that more would have to be done for their supporters in the South.
Other Tory MPs vociferously campaigned for action, too. They included Jacqui Lait, the Tory MP for Hastings, whose effigy has been hung by angry fishermen from the mast of a beached fishing boat, with the message 'Jacqui Lait sank this boat'.
The Government responded. It postponed the implementation of an EC directive that would force fishermen to tie up their boats, and last week it announced a momentous change in the map for assisted area status. For the first time, resources are to be switched from Wales and the North to the once-prosperous South. The towns that will benefit read like a roll-call of endangered Tory seats. In addition to Hastings (Conservative majority 6,634), there are Dover and Deal, where David Shaw held the seat by 833 votes over Labour; Great Yarmouth (Michael Carttiss, majority 5,309), Isle of Wight (Barry Field, 1,827), and Torbay (Rupert Allason, 5,787).
In Christchurch, the complaints encountered by canvassers have been those common to all Tory seats in the South: VAT on fuel bills, the fear of crime, and the perceived threat to pensions and other parts of the welfare state on which they depend. 'It's all about perceptions,' said the Tory official. 'We are seen as the party which is competent on the economy, no matter what a hash we make of it. Labour is seen as the party for the health service, although we have invested more in it.'
But in one important respect Christchurch is shielded from the growing disillusion. With its high level of retired people (34 per cent), it has an unemployment rate of 8.6 per cent, well below the national average. Elsewhere in the South, rising unemployment is the underlying cause of the deep unrest being felt by Tory voters. Harwich, for instance, has the country's highest proportion of homes owned outright (46.9 per cent without mortgages), yet its unemployment levels have qualified it and the other towns for assisted area status (see table). The unemployment figures start from a low base, compared to the Northern towns hit by the recession of the early Eighties, but the shock may have been greater.
Perhaps the most dangerous perception of all for southern- belt Tory MPs is that the Government is incompetent. It is accused of careering from one crisis to another. 'I didn't like Maggie Thatcher but I respected her. At least with her, you knew where you were going,' is a common refrain in Christchurch.
The perception of Mr Major - a nice man, but too weak to be the leader of the country - could be lethal. Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, believes that a victory by his party tomorrow may be another nail in Mr Major's political coffin.
Fifteen months after Mr Major helped to produce the biggest popular vote for the Tories since the war, the disenchantment of the voters in Christchurch is great enough to suggest that they may not give him the benefit of the doubt next time.
Both Mr Ashdown and John Smith, the Labour leader, have ruled out an alliance to remove the Tories from office. But, in the South at least, the public appears to be actively exhorting them to do it.
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