Manningtree's railway madness

BRIAN Wilson, the diminutive Scottish journalist turned MP who has announced he is quitting the Commons at the next election, unwittingly played a starring role in one of the most spurious campaigns in the run-up to the 1997 General Election.

BRIAN Wilson, the diminutive Scottish journalist turned MP who has announced he is quitting the Commons at the next election, unwittingly played a starring role in one of the most spurious campaigns in the run-up to the 1997 General Election.

Two of Labour's candidates in unwinnable seats along the River Stour – Tim Young in North Essex and Paul Bishop in South Suffolk – ran an alarm story in 1996 that privatisation of the railways would spell the end of InterCity services from Manningtree to London. To give credibility to this ludicrous suggestion, they asked Wilson – at that time an opposition spokesman on transport – to attend a photo opportunity on the station. For good measure, Ipswich MP Jamie Cann put in an appearance as well.

It all started to go wrong when Wilson missed his train in London, caught the next one which went nowhere near Manningtree, and had to hail a taxi from Colchester's North station.

When the opposition spokesman promoting the railways finally arrived by road, nearly an hour late, he and Cann promptly headed for the station's famous buffet bar, dispensing alcohol to the few journalists who had decided to give the story some legs on what was a slow news day.


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Another drink all round swiftly followed, then came the staged photo shoot, and a few minutes later, the two MPs headed for Liverpool Street on one of the InterCity trains which they had solemnly agreed with Messrs Young and Bishop were about to be axed.

Eight years later, Manningtree's InterCity and mainline services not only remain but passengers use the station in greater numbers than ever. Were they ever in danger of the axe? Of course not – as British Rail's Anglia division kept saying at the time. In fact, services to Manningtree have expanded since privatisation with competition between Anglia and Great Eastern.

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Despite his somewhat brief and disastrous foray into the Stour Valley, Wilson subsequently held six ministerial posts in the Government. His decision to leave the Commons at the next election led Tony Blair to pay this tribute: "He has always put forward the case for New Labour with skill and courage."

As for Messrs Young and Bishop, they're still waiting the electorate's call.

WITH hunting set to be abolished within two years, high street charity shops will soon be inundated with cast-off hunting pinks and jodhpurs. They will go alongside the thousands of miners lamps not needed since the closure of the coalfields.

It's claimed a hunting ban will hit some rural communities hard – but not, I wager, anything like the devastation the villages of Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Durham suffered when this country turned its back on King Coal.

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