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TORIES?

Byline: By KIRSTY BUCHANAN Western Mail

Has Labour given up hope of holding Monmouth, the most marginal seat in Wales? Huw Edwards is fighting to shore up a majority of 384 against Tory candidate David Davies and his ambitions of ending the Conservatives' eight-year wipe-out in Wales. In the first of a series on Welsh battlegrounds, Political Editor Kirsty Buchanan assesses the mood in Monmouth and finds out what it's like to campaign 'on the edge'

THE welcoming party is corralled by an anxious party worker. 'Get closer together so you look more,' she orders.

We are waiting to meet Shadow Home Secretary David Davis, coming to the Conservatives' top target seat in Wales to talk about law and order.

He is taking time out from defending his own slim majority and is flying down by helicopter from Yorkshire.

It is the first stop of the morning and he is already 20 minutes late.

We spot him first in the sky buzzing over Chippenham Court, the residential home he is to visit.

Sadly, this former SAS territorial does not get winched down into the car park.

On the face of it, the well-groomed market town of Monmouth seems an odd place to talk about fear of crime.

The slight but ambitiously priced weekly newspaper cannot muster up so much as some criminal damage to fill its bulletins.

The only violent act appears to be the council's plans to chop down a record-breaking Catalpa Tree - from the Trumpet Creeper family - whose admirable 100cm base is rooted in St James Square.

But Monmouth's Conservative AM and parliamentary candidate David Davies insists there is a 'huge problem' with crack dealers stopping off for a few quick sales on their way to South Wales.

Chippenham Court residents John Wyatt and Ron Larner have lived in the home for four years.

During that time there have been three break-ins and a few run-ins with the noisy kids who like to hang out in neighbouring Chippenham Fields.

'The children drink and make a lot of noise in the park,' says John. 'I am told there are needles over there but I have not seen them.'

Favouring the traditional suit and car entrance, Mr Davis beams at his welcoming party when he arrives.

'Hello - I'm the other David Davis,' he says with well practised modesty.

David Davis, David Davies, the welcoming party, staff, camera crews and print journalists cram into the home for a five-minute chat with residents before the whole entourage heads up the deserted Monmouth high street.

Then Mr Davis heads back to the helicopter. It has been a flying visit.

It is a popular campaign tactic but the point of these 'big hitter' visits is unclear.

There is plenty of media interest but the cameras seem to scare off the punters.

Without his namesake, David Davies is approached by a shopper as he gives interviews in Agincourt Square.

She intends to vote Conservative but warns Tory leader Michael Howard's comments about immigration get her 'back up'.

Mr Davies has himself come under fire for highlighting immigration but insists it's the press, not himself, that always bring the subject up.

'I'll tell you what the big issues of this campaign are for the people of Monmouth,' he says. 'They are the council tax, health and education.'

The re-banding of properties in Wales has hit Monmouth's residents particularly hard and, generally, it is the Labour-run Assembly rather than the Conservative-run council which seems to be getting the blame.

Mr Davies is odds-on favourite to become the next Monmouth MP and privately Labour sources admit the party has all but given up defending this ultra-marginal.

The manpower and resources are concentrated on holding seats like Vale of Glamorgan and Cardiff North, leaving Labour candidate Huw Edwards to fall back on old friends. On the day there are two David Davies' in Monmouth, there are two baronesses roaming round Chepstow.

Baroness (Anita) Gale and Baroness (Kay) Andrews are canvassing with Mr Edwards in Garden City, a Chepstow suburb.

Mr Edwards is in a plucky mood and dismisses suggestions he has been abandoned to his fate.

But as the group goes door- to-door they reminisce about Mr Edwards's 1991 by-election victory (when the Loonies beat Plaid Cymru) and there is a wistful air as they recall the resources and manpower that Labour once poured into winning the seat.

By way of tribute to Labour's economic record, barely one in five homes finds someone in.

It may be good news for the employed but it's bad news for Mr Edwards, who needs to get his pitch across to as many people as possible with limited time and resources at his disposal.

'I'm on my way out' growls one voter Mr Edwards manages to find at home. 'Can I just say hello?' he appeals. Two minutes later the man has confirmed his intention to vote Labour.

He gives the distinct impression he would confess to several unsolved crimes if it would free him from Mr Edwards's political patter, but nevertheless he is registered as a 'definite'.

The afternoon reads like a guide to New Labour's hurdles to a third term victory.

One woman is angry over Iraq, another complains about her soaring council tax bill.

One young couple make a run for their car, muttering about politicians being 'all the same'.

And we meet Emma Dobbs, a 26-year-old mother-of-two crippled by a painful pelvic condition and facing an interminable wait for treatment because of Wales' horrendous hospital waiting lists.

Liberal Democrat candidate and current Chepstow Mayor Phil Hobson believes Mr Edwards will lose but warns Mr Davies not to get too comfortable.

Monmouth, he believes, is really a tale of three parties not a tussle between two. Plaid Cymru (Jonathan Clark) and Ukip (John Bufton) are also standing.

In the 2004 local elections it was the Lib Dems as much as the Tories which routed Labour.

And, if Mr Davies were to win Monmouth and in time relinquish his seat in the Assembly, Mr Hobson believes it is the Lib Dems who would be the real challengers.

Ultimately Monmouth could become another example of the successful Lib Dem 'slowly, slowly' strategy rather than a story of Tory revival.
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 27, 2005
Words:1037
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