Out there - West Country

Janet Bush is told Oliver Letwin is doing nothing

Do you remember 2001, when Oliver Letwin said something about the Tories wanting to cut taxes by £20bn if they won and, after an almighty ticking-off, disappeared into the wilds of West Dorset? Well, he is there again . . . I think. He wasn't doing anything on Sunday, Conservative Central Office informed me. My eight-year-old daughter, already a seasoned pedant, said: "If he isn't doing anything, he isn't breathing and he must be dead." I then explained the Liberal Democrats' decapitation strategy - the shadow chancellor is defending a majority of 1,414 - and things took really quite a gruesome turn.

I may be wrong, but the election campaign doesn't seem to be going well for Letwin. Tony Blair is deeply unpopular here; the towns of Dorchester, Lyme Regis, Bridport and Tolpuddle have a long tradition of Nonconformism and bloody-mindedness. Many local people marched against the Iraq war and they think the PM is a liar. But the issue of trust appears to be as damaging for the Tories. Just as Letwin damaged the Tories in 2001, so Howard Flight's remark that they were hiding the true extent of planned spending cuts because "you have to win an election first" has hurt them in 2005. A perception that the Tories are economical with the truth has taken root.

The latest betting is for a narrow victory for the Liberal Democrat candidate, Justine McGuinness, an environmental consultant born in West Dorset. A call to her offices is answered promptly and, within a couple of hours, I have an itinerary for her and a firm arrangement to meet. Briefings are offered on local policies; my meeting is confirmed by e-mail.

When I meet the candidate at a manor house that has opened its garden in aid of Marie Curie cancer research, she is delightful - crisply dressed in sky-blue linen, articulate, knowledgeable and friendly, but with a steely edge. As she admires the knot garden and the apple walk, she is recognised by several local folk, all of whom enthusiastically wish her luck. Lib Dem policies are going down well, in particular free personal care for the elderly and replacing the council tax with a local income tax.

Letwin's local team wants to help but is not allowed to; all press queries are referred to Central Office even though I live 20 miles away. Can't we just sort it out without asking London? "Goodness me, no," the party man says. "I have a wife and two children to support!"

Apparently, the tyranny of the centre is now as fearsome in Howard's party as it is in new Labour.

In any event, I was told that the shadow chancellor would not see me because he was fed up with the media asking him about economics and disrupting his local campaign. I genuinely sympathise; hacks shouldn't get in the way, and he has a tough fight on his hands. Yet I wonder whether the Howard Conservative Party's brutal brand of professionalism might not, more broadly, have compromised its likeableness.

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