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The blues in Osborne country

There is a corner of the north of England that is for ever blue.

It was blue back in the days when it was represented by Neil Hamilton, and, in spite of an "independent" episode in the form of Martin Bell, it remains blue now. So blue most people you talk to tell you simply that they have always voted Conservative, as their parents did. That area is the Tatton constituency, the corner of Cheshire currently represented by George Osborne. In the week that the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a further £25 billion of spending cuts, half of which are to come from the welfare budget, I went to this part of England to find out whether there, in the towns and villages that voted him in, people loved his tough medicine. What is life like in Osborne land?

The first thing one notices in Tatton is the cars. Gleaming white BMWs and Mercedes line the streets of Knutsford, the town where Osborne's constituency office is located. A McLaren dealership sits opposite the building itself. On Sundays, locals say, the roadsides of Knutsford and nearby Alderley Edge are jammed with such high end cars, brazenly dumped on the double yellows: Lamborghinis, Bentleys, Aston Martins.

This is the footballer belt, known as the Golden Triangle - the patch that in recent years has been home to Cristiano Ronaldo, Rio Ferdinand and Alex Ferguson. The Beckhams once lived here. It's also where Manchester money settled, as well as commuters from further afield, even London. On one road heading out of Knutsford, the mansions - which back on to a lake - sell for around £3 million. But they're nothing on the footballer pads near Alderley Edge, which contains the second most expensive street outside the south of England. Much to the dismay of some locals, round here it has become common practice to buy a nice old property, knock it down and build bigger.

But there are other parts of Knutsford which are less moneyed. Even here, not every street is paved with gold. There is unemployment, though it's lower than the national average.

Just down from the town's glam high street, Nicola Marcombe pushes her grandson across the park. She lives, she says, pointing upwards to an estate "on the other side", a patch of former social housing and the Longridge council estate. Marcombe moved up from Hackney in London around seven years ago and says she is happy here, and not planning to ever move again. "Some of the people here don't know how lucky they are."

She is, however, critical of local attitudes. "They can be racist," she says, then amends the comment. "Or at least, they don't like immigration. I don't think anyone would go out of their way to be rude to someone that wasn't white, though they're very ignorant - but then they've not been brought up in a mixed society." Indeed, among this 96% white population, are very few obvious immigrants: while I'm there, I spot only one, a Romanian woman selling the Big Issue. She says she has been here for five years and is happy.

To the outside eye, Tatton can seem like a charmed bubble, unaffected by economic hard times. But even on the buzzing streets, that's not entirely the case. Many shop owners talk of how tough it has been. In Alderley Edge, Russell Hambleton runs the Alderley Cheese Wedge, selling cheese and a tantalising range of alternative sausage rolls. "People think Alderley Edge is very affluent," he says, "and it might well be for the minority. But here people suffer, just the same as anywhere else."

Voting Conservative is a tradition in Tatton, just as voting Labour is in other parts. Even the Neil Hamilton cash-for-questions scandal did little to break this. One former member of the local party notes that many people stuck with the party in spite of their disgust. Back then, he had been deeply involved with the local branch, but following the scandal he "got fed up" and left. However, he still votes Tory. He thinks George Osborne "is a good thing".

Cheese-seller Hambleton, a lifelong Conservative voter, notes that all his friends vote Conservative, "but most of them are disillusioned by what is doing on". In this area, it turns out, people are frustrated - not by the welfare cuts, or the bedroom tax, but by other issues closer to their own hearts and pockets. For Hambleton, it is the fact that supermarkets have been allowed to set up both inside and outside the village, "allowing the big boys to tread all over the small traders". He is also concerned about immigration: "Our infrastructure won't stand it. We're exploding, bursting at the seams."

When asked about spending cuts, most Tatton locals seem to think they are appropriate. Lynne Miller, owner of The Black Rose flower shop in Knutsford, says: "I think we all believe we can't go on spending the way we are doing."

In a place dominated by big house prices, it is inevitable that housing is an issue. Many struggle to afford a place to live. Yet there is, says Tim Pinder, chief executive of Peaks & Plains Housing Trust, a "vitriolic opposition to many of our attempts to develop rural affordable housing".

In this context, a Labour supporter is a rare species. In Alderley Edge, Dominic Brown, 33, chairman of the local Labour branch, appears to be virtually the only red in the village. He recalls that there were only three people at his first meeting. Shortly after, the chairman passed away and he stepped in. "From not having any meetings for about 10 years," he says, "we've been doing things, campaigning and social events."

We chat in a Costa coffee shop on the main street which is, he says, where the journalists hang out footballer-spotting. As a mature student, how does he afford to live here? By living, it turns out, in a relatively small house, with his family. "Some people think, living in Alderley Edge, I'm like some millionaire, which I'm not. I just happen to be living here by some quirk of fate. I used to be a mechanical engineer, did skilled manual labour."

What has surprised him is that round here people don't really talk that much about their MP. There is little fandom. "But also there's no animosity towards him," he says. "It's almost like he's there, but so what?" One of his gripes, though, is that Osborne no longer has a home in the area. Several years ago, the MP sold his home, near Macclesfield, making a £445,000 profit. Since then he hasn't bought a new one. Brown says: "This is Tatton for God's sake! Out of every constituency in the country, surely, where you would most want to live?"

He also feels he should visit more, but adds: "He's very clever, though, he comes back and does photo opportunities for the press on Fridays. You could almost call it photo-ops Friday."

Friday, January 10 is one of these "photo-op Fridays". Osborne is up from London doing a string of engagements, his first being at Knutsford Academy, where he is launching the building of a new "studio school". There are plenty of Osborne fans watching as he slips an elegant spade, fashioned by a local blacksmith, into the ground to make the symbolic first move breaking the soil on the project.

The mood here is upbeat. Governors talk of how much help he has given to the cause. Osborne himself jokes about the occasion he turned up at the Department of Education for a meeting about the project: "I think they were rather shocked and surprised that the Chancellor of the Exchequer turned up."

One can think of many other places in the UK where he wouldn't get quite so warm a reception. Indeed, a few hours later, in nearby Winsford, such is the case. A small crowd of All Cheshire Against HS2 protesters brandish placards in front of the local council offices. One woman wears a pink T-shirt with the slogan "Stop HS2". They're puzzled as to why George Osborne has chosen to hold his meeting with Tatton constituents a few miles outside his actual constituency. Is he, they ponder, worried someone might throw an egg at him?

The group's secretary, John Keleher, a Tatton constituent, tells me that he has voted Conservative all his life, but plans at the next election on voting for an anti-HS2 party. He says: "How can the government justify the cost of HS2, when George Osborne is talking £25bn more cuts focused on the welfare side? It is all about people versus business and business seems to come out on top every time. If I lived in Scotland I know which way I would be voting on the independence bill!"

Tatton is a reminder not just of the differences between the haves and the have nots, but of the tribalism of voting. In a place as blue as this, it's hard to be any other colour of the rainbow - though Dominic Brown seems to be thriving on it.

"I love living here. If I was offered a council seat somewhere but had to move there, I'd probably say no. I've done more as chair than anyone has for 20 years. We had a Christmas dinner. Gerald Kaufman joined us. There were 80-year-olds there who had never done anything like it."

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