Hanningfield's psychiatric jibe

ESSEX Conservatives have started their campaign early as they bid for four more years of control of county hall in Chelmsford – but a few eyebrows will be raised at council leader Lord Hanningfield's assertion that anyone who votes Liberal Democrat or Labour "should seek psychiatric help.

ESSEX Conservatives have started their campaign early as they bid for four more years of control of county hall in Chelmsford - but a few eyebrows will be raised at council leader Lord Hanningfield's assertion that anyone who votes Liberal Democrat or Labour "should seek psychiatric help."

Lord Hanningfield, who is leader of the authority and also one of the party's top performers in the House of Lords, was speaking at a meeting of council candidates in which he asserted the party would win at least 60 of the 75 seats at stake.

His rallying call claimed the county four years ago was "nearly bankrupt, and could hardly pay its bills." Labour and the Lib Dems were booted out by the voters and the Tories took "dramatic economic action" - nearly derailed by the Government, which diverted £100m in grant money away from Essex to Labour controlled councils in the north and midlands.

The normally sure-footed Lord Hanningfield may have to re-consider his choice of "psychiatric help" wording. This week Leader of the Commons Peter Hain apologised for branding Tory leader Michael Howard an "attack mongrel," a term of abuse for Jewish people.

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Challenged on Tuesday, Mr Hain said: "We always say things in the heat of the moment that we would have preferred not to have said and that was one of them."

IT might be a bit over the top to say that Michael Howard is the ailing Pope's choice as next Prime Minister, but the Tory leader's stock has certainly risen among millions of Catholic voters after he backed a reduction of the legal time limit for abortions.

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The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, praised Mr Howard and wants mainland Britain's three million Catholic voters to question parliamentary candidates on abortion and other key policy issues ahead of the election.

Mr Howard says he favours reducing the limit on abortions from the 24th week of pregnancy to the 20th week while Tony Blair - whose wife is a Catholic - has no plans to change current policy.

Cardinal Murphy O'Connor said: "Abortion, for Catholics, is a very key issue, we are totally opposed to it. The policy supported by Mr Howard is one that we would also commend, on the way to a full abandonment of abortion.

"As Bishops, we are not going to suggest people support one particular party. But there has been a notion in the past that Catholics would be more in support of the Labour party because they were working class people. Now I'm not so sure that will be quite so true today."

The cardinal's comment took Downing Street by surprise which hopes desperately that abortion will not become the election issue it was in the US elections last November.

"The Prime Minister believes this is a matter for a free vote and conscience on both sides of the House," said Mr Blair's spokesman. "Therefore, in his opinion it would be a pity if this did become a party-political issue, or indeed a general election issue."

It all left the Rev Peter Townley, Rural Dean of Ipswich and vicar of the town's St Mary-le-Tower, wondering in a letter to The Times yesterday: " "Now which Church is the Conservative Party at prayer?"

BURY St Edmunds Labour candidate's correct web address in www.davemonaghan.labour.co.uk

RURAL branch lines such as the Marks Tey to Sudbury link are to be turned into a community rail partnership. This week MPs raised some concerns that the travelling public could suffer if this leads to a lack of investment.

The Local Government Association has echoed this. David Sparks, chairman of its Environment Board said: "The Railways Bill currently before Parliament has caused concern that rural rail closures will be made easier. Whilst we accept ministers' assurances that they have no intention to embark upon a Beeching-style closure programme, nevertheless historical safeguards are being eroded by the Bill."

JEFFREY Titford, Euro MP for the East of England and UK Independence Party candidate for Harwich, has intervened in the in the row over the decision to award those who took part in the Arctic Convoys campaign of World War II with an emblem rather than a medal.

"Wholly inadequate," says Mr Titford in a letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair. "The response from many of the surviving veterans has been great disappointment and even anger. Rather than seeing the emblem as an acknowledgement of their bravery, they see it as an insult.

"I understand that your advisors and officials may be battling with the complex rules for the issuing of medals retrospectively. However, yours is not a Government that will be remembered for stodgy adherence to the rulebook, quite the contrary."

Urging the issue of a medal, Mr Titford adds: "This long overdue gesture would not only be a recognition of the huge sacrifices made by the almost 3,000 British sailors and merchant seaman who were killed in U-boat and Luftwaffe raids but it would also be a recognition of the bravery of the surviving veterans who endured terrible hardships and experiences that have marked them for life."

Meanwhile, UKIP has slipped into place a host of General Election candidates. With the exception of Colchester, all constituencies in Suffolk and north and mid Essex have people ready to fight on the "enough's enough - let's get out of the European Union" ticket.

Among them is Roger Lord, who is changing constituencies for the third time - 1997 it was Essex North, 2001 Colchester, and now he's tipped up in Braintree.

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