David Cameron may be the Conservative party’s most successful leader since 1997, but doubts linger about whether he’s a traditional shire Tory or a liberal moderniserby Wendell Steavenson / April 25, 2010 / Leave a comment
Turn right off the Oxford ring road towards the middling, contented, unremarkable town of Witney. There’s a small industrial park on the outskirts, cul-de-sacs of anonymous new housing, rows of pretty stone textile workers cottages and a church with a tall storybook steeple. The high street is lined with the usual chain stores interspersed with Tudoresque pubs; the new Marriotts Walk shopping centre has a multiplex, with Starbucks coming soon. On Saturdays there is a market: tracksuits and fleeces, fruit and veg, pic ’n’ mix. Three old men with flying white hair and pinched March wind faces, one bent over an aluminium walking stick, rummage in a plastic bin for tweed flat caps.
There’s not much to complain about in Witney. One of the more contentious local issues this spring was the lack of allotments. The crime rate is one of the lowest in the Thames Valley (although there is plenty of disquiet in the Witney Gazette about the yobbishness in the town centre on a Saturday night), and the council tax is one of the lowest in the country. The credit crunch hit but glanced off: most people made redundant could find another job, if perhaps not as well paid.
Witney is one of the most rural parliamentary constituencies. The town is in the south; drive north, and you find yourself in England’s green and pleasant land. If the weather is good, sunshine will burnish the Cotswolds stone yellow and you can brave an outside table at one of the tea shoppes in the postcard-pretty towns of Banbury or Chipping Norton.
“We’ve got all the usual issues of rural life,” explained Barry Norton, leader of the West Oxfordshire District Council. “Services and facilities under threat: post offices, the village shop. We’re always fighting to get the ambulance response times to meet their targets.”
Shaun Woodward took over as Conservative MP for Witney in 1997, when Douglas Hurd retired. Married to a Sainsbury and ensconced in the stately Sarsden House (which he sold in 2006 for a reported £24m), he had seemed a good sort. But in 1999 Woodward crossed the floor and joined Labour, ostensibly in protest at his party’s illiberalism on gay rights. His sudden defection traumatised the local Tories.
Norton is also the consultant agent of the Witney Conservative Association. Sitting in their offices on the high street, he told me the selection committee “did not want…