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Monday, 28 May, 2001, 13:38 GMT 14:38 UK

'Rising star' hopes for Westminster ascent

By BBC News Online community affairs reporter Cindi John

"Hello, I'm Archie Norman. Let me introduce you to your Conservative candidate for Northampton South, Shailesh Vara."

" People like John Townend are on their way out of parliament. People like me are on their way in "
Shailesh Vara

With this opening gambit the latest Tory big gun wheeled out to give support to Shailesh Vara's campaign pounces on unsuspecting shoppers in Northampton's Market Square.

The Tory environment spokesman had forsaken campaigning in his own seat of Tunbridge Wells to lend a hand in the campaign of Mr Vara, a 40-year-old solicitor.

Mr Norman's visit follows one by Tory leader William Hague, indicating how keenly the party hopes to snatch back Labour's fifth most marginal seat and a key Tory target.

Labour's Tony Clarke won the constituency in 1997 with a majority of just 744. A swing of less than 1% will see Mr Vara retake what before the last election was a safe Conservative seat.

'Race not relevant'

A sunny afternoon provides the perfect opportunity for Mr Vara and his team to press leaflets on passers-by.

Northampton South
1997 result

  • Labour - 24,214
  • Con - 23,470
  • Lib Dem - 6,316
  • Ref - 1,405
  • UKIP - 1,159
  • NLP - 541
  • Lab majority: 744
    Mr Vara says the issues he is pushing hardest - law and order, health and education - are the ones of most concern to people in Northampton.

    "On the law and order issue we have some difficulty with troublesome travellers," he says.

    "We've also got a lessening of police numbers and it's important we have more police visible, especially in rural parts of the constituency."

    The two Tory candidates, both in shirtsleeves, look and sound almost identical.

    But Archie Norman is white and Shailesh Vara is Asian. He insists his race makes no difference, but it has already surfaced locally as an issue.

    After the local Conservative association selected Mr Vara - a Ugandan-born Hindu - in 1999, the sitting MP declared that "for all the wrong reasons we [Labour] have exactly the candidate against us we would have wished for".

    Mr Clarke denied it had been a racist remark and apologised for any offence caused.

    For his part, Mr Vara insists that despite the implications of Mr Clarke's statement, he has not detected even the slightest whiff of racism during his many stints canvassing around the town.

    "I've had absolutely no problems at all and as far as I'm concerned the issue of race is not relevant in this constituency," he says.

    "It hasn't been an issue for me so far since my selection and I'm confident that it will not be an issue either."

    He also dismisses his own party's recent race row when remarks about a "mongrel race" by retiring MP John Townend provoked a furious reaction from Tory peer Lord Taylor.

    "People like John Townend are on their way out of parliament," says Mr Vara.

    "People like me are on their way in. That message is more powerful than any words can convey."

    'Rising star'

    The Conservatives have only ever had two ethnic minority MPs: Sir Mancherjee Bhownaggree, elected as MP for Bethnal Green in 1895; more recently, Nirj Deva, who won Brentford & Isleworth in 1992 only to lose in at the following election. He is now an MEP.

    Mr Vara is adamant that the high-level support he has enjoyed from the Tory leadership has been simply because he is contesting a key marginal seat.

    But he acknowledges it would not harm the party's image for him to make it to Westminster.

    "Clearly it would be nice from a party point of view to have me in parliament because then it would demonstrate very powerfully the inclusive nature of our party."

    The party hierarchy has certainly taken care to tip Shailesh Vara for great things.

    Last year's Tory conference saw him awarded the accolade of official "rising star" of the party, with Lord Alexander of Weedon describing him as a "future Conservative Party leader".

    While flattered, Mr Vara says such plaudits will not distract him from what he sees as his main goal.

    "As far as I'm concerned I wish to be a good member of parliament and my aim is to ensure that I give the people of Northampton South good and proper service to the best of my ability."

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