Focus on our neighbours

Political Editor GRAHAM DINES looks at five Conservative-held constituencies in Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Essex which adjoin the EADT's core circulation area.

Political Editor GRAHAM DINES looks at five Conservative-held constituencies in Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Essex which adjoin the EADT's core circulation area.

PERHAPS the most remarkable result in a 2001 doom laden election for the Conservatives was posted by former Education Secretary Gillian Shephard in the Thetford-Swaffham-Downham Market based constituency of Norfolk South West.

Mrs Shephard had a majority in 1997 of 2,646 and could have been vulnerable to tactical voting. This is obviously what the Liberal Democrats hoped, who shortly before polling day advised their supporters to back Labour instead in order to dump the redoubtable Tory.

It backfired dramatically – Mrs Shephard, hugely popular on her own turf, trebled her majority with a swing of 6.7% to herself, one of the highest in Britain, and achieved more than 50% of the total vote.

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This time she is not defending the seat because of the serious illness of her husband. Her Tory successor Christopher Fraser – former MP for Mid Dorset and Poole North – will not enjoy the personal support Mrs Shephard had and he will be doing well if he manages to achieve half her 2001 majority.

In neighbouring Norfolk South, talk of a Liberal Democrat victory in 2001 proved well wide of the mark, Tory newcomer Richard Bacon finishing 6,893 ahead in a seat which encompasses Diss and well-heeled villages to the south of Norwich along the A140.

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However, this remains the only chance of a Lib Dem gain from the Tories anywhere in East Anglia and the party has chosen the energetic GP Dr Ian Mack, who is confident of unseating Mr Bacon.

To do so, he will need volunteer helpers by the bucket load, but Lib Dem resources will be stretched as they battle to hold Norfolk North and try to unseat Home Secretary Charles Clarke in Norwich South and Ann Campbell in Cambridge.

Labour, which must concentrate on seeing off the Tories in Great Yarmouth and Norwich North, is unlikely to waste too much energy in a seat it cannot possibly win.

Norfolk South seems a mountain too high for Charles Kennedy's troops, especially if there is any sign of a Tory revival. The Lib Dems' best hope will be a decent result and an immediate decision after polling day to choose Dr Mack for the following election.

Cambridgeshire South-East was the scene of the most appalling and tragic news story of the past four years. The little town of Soham hit the headlines following the abduction and murder of school girls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman.

As media organisations from around the world camped out in the community waiting for news, hearts went out to the dignity of the girls' parents during that fateful August week.

Former Suffolk farmer and Suffolk Coastal councillor Jim Paice has held the seat for the Tories since 1987. He is well established and even the candidature last time of Sal Brinton – the darling of East of England Lib Dems – failed to dent Mr Paice's hold on the division, which is based on the cathedral city of Ely and surrounding towns plus the army garrison at Waterbeach,

With Mrs Brinton having decamped to Watford where she has a good chance of unseating the Labour MP, Mr Paice seems set fair for another four years in the House of Commons.

For the voters of Brenwtood & Ongar, the 2001 General Election will be remembered as the time the man in a white suite rode into town, and came an almighty cropper.

Just why Martin Bell, the self-styled campaigner against sleaze, thought he sniffed something dodgy in the plush acres of mega-rich Brentwood & Ongar still remains unclear four years on.

Mr Bell, who in 1997 famously unseated Tory MP Neil Hamilton in Tatton – with the connivance of Labour and the Lib Dems who refused to put up candidates – had pledged to stand just one term up in Cheshire.

He kept his word, but then looked round to find another seat. There were a couple of Labour seats where he might have stood, but alighted on Brentwood & Ongar because a number of disaffected Tories had asked him to stand because of the alleged influence on the party of the Peniel Church.

His challenge failed, mainly because Labour and the Lib Dems refused to stand down to give him an easy time.

This year's election in one of the most cash rich constituencies in Britain reverts to a traditional battle – with a twist. Martin Bell has come out for the Lib Dems, urging a united front to defeat Conservative incumbent Eric Pickles.

Although seat seems unlikely to return to the heady days of a five figure Tory majority just yet, Labour's core vote seems certain to resist the allure of the Liberal Democrats.

Neighbouring Rayleigh includes a number of wards of the borough of Chelmsford – East & West Hanningfield, Rettendon & Runwell, South Hanningfield, South Woodham-Collingwood East & West, South Woodham-Elmwood & Woodville. It is perhaps best known as the scene of the `Essex Boys' murders at Rettendon.

Conservative Mark Francois was a newcomer last time, but he was one of a handful of Tories to get more than 50% of the vote in a commuting constituency centred on Rayleigh and communities stretching towards Southend-on-Sea including Hullbridge and Hockley.

Mr Francois, who played a major role in the Tory leadership election campaign of Iain Duncan Smith following the 2001 General Election debacle, has had minor roles in the opposition teams of both IDS and Michael Howard.

Anything other than a comfortable Tory victory here would be a huge shock, but Mr Francois should enjoy it while he can. Boundary changes next time will radically alter the constituency, which is to be renamed Rayleigh and Wickford, losing the Chelmsford wards and gaining part of Billericay and also Assingdon & Canewdon. In a bad election year for the Tories, it will become slightly less of a foregone conclusion.


2001 result

*J Paice (Con) 22,927, S Brinton (LD) 13,937, A Inchley (Lab) 13,714, N Scarr (UKIP) 1,308. Con maj 8,990. No change. Turnout 63.54%. Electorate 81,663. Swing 0.3% Con to LD


*G Shepherd (Con) 27,633, A Hanson (Lab) 18,267, G. Dean (LD) 5,681, I Smith (UKIP) 1,368. Con maj 9,366. No change. Turnout 63.11%. Electorate 83,903. Swing 6.7% Lab to Con.


R Bacon (Con) 23,589, A Lee (LD) 16,696, M Wells (Lab) 13,719, S Ross-Wagenknecht (Green) 1,069, J Neal (UKIP) 856. Con maj 6,893. No change. Turnout 67.62%. Electorate 87,210. Swing 0.2% LD to Con


M Francois (Con) 21,434, P Clark (Lab) 13,144, G Williams (LD) 6,614, C Morgan (UKIP) 1,581. Con maj 8,290. No change. Turnout 60.54%. Electorate 70.653. Swing 0.7% Con to Lab


*E Pickles (Con) 16,558, *M Bell (Ind) 13,737, D Kendall (LD) 6,772, D Johnson (Lab) 5,505, K Gulleford (UKIP) 611, P Pryke (Ind) 239, B Bishop (Church of the Militant Elvis) 68, T Appleton (Ind) 52. Con maj 2,821. No change. Turnout 67.15%. Electorate 64,693.

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