Disappointment for Tory hopefuls

THE "no vacancies" signs have hoisted above East Anglia as one-by-one some of the country's most senior and distinguished politicians decide they have no desire to quit the House of Commons.

By Graham Dines

THE "no vacancies" signs have hoisted above East Anglia as one-by-one some of the country's most senior and distinguished politicians decide they have no desire to quit the House of Commons.

With the Tories in the doldrums, and facing predictions of further decline at the next General Election, there is little chance that Cabinet ministers from the 18 heady years of Tory rule under Margaret Thatcher and John Major will ever taste office again.

Nevertheless, former Environment Secretary and Chairman of the Conservative Party John Gummer (Suffolk Coastal) and Gillian Shephard (Norfolk South-West) show no signs of wanting to end their political careers.

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Indeed, don't be surprised if Mr Gummer – who will be 64 in November – fights the election after next when he will be in his early 70s.

The old tradition was to send Right Honourable MPs "upstairs." Until now, the House of Lords has provided a handy haven for MPs, who can't bear the prospect of saying farewell to the Palace of Westminster, to continue enjoying the stately surroundings.

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But that escape route is about to be sealed off. Whatever the eventual percentage is of peers who end up being elected, the practice of appointing life peers to pack the upper house will cease.

There seems little point in an MP quitting the Commons to seek election on a regional list to the Lords. And, of course, the Tory hierarchy would be extremely nervous of defending by-elections, even though the majorities of Mr Gummer and Mrs Shephard are 4,326 and 9,366 respectively.

They are also "benefiting" from the new working hours in the Commons, with the abolition of most late-night sittings, the virtual cessation of Friday meetings, and a morning start three days a week.

There has been much to exercise John Gummer since the last election, when he saw off a determined Labour challenge to increase his majority on a 1.4% swing to the Tories.

With global warming probably a greater threat to low lying Suffolk Coastal than any other part of the UK, Mr Gummer is able to use his environmental expertise to try to stiffen the resolve of the United Nations, United States and European politicians, as well as our own Government, to combat harmful carbon dioxide emissions.

For Mr Gummer, the first five weeks of 2003 has already seen a successful conclusion to the Hollesley Bay Suffolk Punch stud farm campaign, the breach of security at Sizewell nuclear power station, and efforts to save a Felixstowe-born prisoner who is on death row in Texas.

Indeed, flying to the United States to make a personal plea for clemency is hardly the action of an MP who has lost his appetite for the job.

Meanwhile Mrs Shephard (63) – who had an amazing General Election result in Norfolk South-West when she trebled her majority on a 6.7% swing – remains a familiar sight in the corridors of Westminster and last week initiated a debate on the closure of the Del Monte factory in Methwold, resulting in the loss of 300 jobs.

After that debate, she told me: "I'm not giving up yet. In fact, our new working hours rather suit me."

Further afield, Cambridgeshire North-West's Sir Brian Mawhinney, 63 this year, who served as Secretary of State for Transport and then Tory Party chairman under John Major, is certain to defend his 8,101 majority next time.

Two other Tories also determined to carry on are East Anglia's longest serving MP Sir Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden) – 66 in June – who is enjoying life as senior Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons and 64 year-old Sir Michael Lord (Suffolk Central and Ipswich North), who has been readopted to fight the next election as he continues in his capacity as another Deputy Speaker.

All this is bad news for would-be Tory MPs, struggling to find winnable seats in the current political climate. If they're looking for a safe haven east of the A1, they'll have a long time to wait.

ARMY generals have put the Strategic Rail Authority to shame by their ground-breaking decision to switch from road to the railways the movement of armoured vehicles and tanks from Norfolk

While the SRA's decision to delay a vital gauge upgrade on the lines through Bury St Edmunds to Peterborough is a massive blow to those who want to see more freight carried by trains, the Army believes using the rail network makes economic and environmental sense.

The SRA says work to allow bigger freightliners to operate from Harwich and Felixstowe to the Midlands has been postponed two years, leaving the freight trains to clog up the London commuter lines through Ipswich and Essex once the floor of the Ipswich tunnel has been lowered next year.

Enter the Army. It is in the process of concluding negotiations with the privately operated Mid-Norfolk Railway to transport tanks on the disused North Elmham to Dereham section of the route and continuing on to the the national rail network at Wymondham.

The plan is to create a railhread at Worthing for use by troops of the Light Dragoons based at the nearby Robertson Barracks in Swanton Morley. It will spell the end of tank transporters negotiating the narrow roads from Swanton Morley – the proposed site is on the southern side of the Worthing crossing, a mile south of North Elmham.

Chris Pearson, operations manager for the MNR, said: "The proposed facilities would include a rail siding and hardstanding with loading and unloading facilities and improved road access to the site."

With the Army becoming responsible for the cost of maintaining the branch line's access to the Norwich-Ely main line at Wymonhdam, the NMR will be free to concentrate on its long term aim of re-laying track north from North Elmham to Fakenham.

Passenger trains from Dereham to Norwich were axed in 1969 as the Labour government implemented the rail closure programme of Dr Beeching. Freight ceased in 1989. Preserved trains now run along part of the track and the Army experimented with a tank train in 1998.

The Light Dragoons are the Divisional Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment of the Third (United Kingdom) Division of the Royal Armoured Corps. Recruiting mainly in North East England, they have seen recent duty in Northern Ireland and Bosnia and are equipped with Scimitar, Striker, Spartan and Sultan high-speed light tanks.

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