With one week to go till polling day, the Tories are throwing the kitchen sink at the Newark by-election. When Patrick Mercer resigned last month, it was assumed the Conservatives would easily hold the seat. But since then, Ukip gave a strong performance locally in the Euro elections, adding an unknown element — a higher turnout in Ukip’s favour? A rise in the anti-politics sentiment?
I visited Newark today to find out how the battle is going. My overall impression is that the Ukip’s operation is being completely dwarfed by the Conservatives. Over 1,000 Tory activists were here last Saturday, with the same expected again this weekend. MPs and ministers are being continuously bussed in. Today alone, five minister have been campaigning in Newark — George Osborne, Sajid Javid, Theresa May, Liz Truss and Matthew Hancock.
— Sebastian Payne (@SebastianEPayne) May 29, 2014
On the streets of Newark-on-Trent, it was hard to avoid Tory activists; walking purposefully towards their designated locations. The Ukippers, on the other hand, were wandering aimlessly around the town centre handing out leaflets. Despite the suggestion of using data to build a more sophisticated operation, Ukip have yet to build a professional campaign. Labour and the Lib Dems were unsurprisingly nowhere to be seen.
As with most by-elections, there is a danger that voters will be turned off by all the attention. One Tory activist who’d been out last weekend — the day the postal voting cards arrived — joked to me about how bombarded the constituents are about to be. Day one of the campaign and offering a man washing his car a leaflet, he jokingly accepted replying ‘just add it to the pile over on the wall’. By aggressively knocking on doors, there is a danger of actually increasing the Ukip vote; by stoking up the anti-politics feeling. Even staff from No.10 are being sent here to phone canvass after work. If Newark voters were sick of politicians before, they will hate them by next Thursday.
The two main candidates standing couldn’t be more different. Robert Jenrick is a 32-year-old bright, if a little bland, Tory while Roger Helmer is a 70-year-old ex-Tory MEP, known for his strong views on homosexuality, climate change, rape and the church. Despite having a wealth of material to attack Helmer, the Tories appear to be playing this by-election nicely, with zero negative campaigning.
In hindsight, Nigel Farage may regret his decision not to stand in Newark. His face appears on the local Ukip leaflets and Helmer has even admitted ‘Nigel has that enormous box office presence’. If Newark is a repeat of last year’s Eastleigh by-election — and Ukip just miss out on the seat — Farage will be kicking himself. If his party pull it out of the bag and win, it would be a game changer. Given the strong Conservative operation here, it seems they are also aware of the high stakes. But judging on what I’ve seen today, it’s likely Jenrick will roll home, albeit with a slimmer majority than his predecessor.
Watch the latest instalment of Spectator TV, featuring interviews with both Jenrick and Helmer.