Norwich North: not your ordinary by-election
Party loyalties are blurred – and the man voters really want as their MP isn't even on the ballot sheet.
Jane Merrick reports
Sitting under the shade of a tree sharing an ice-cream cone with his son, Tony Barnett knows who he wants to win the Norwich North by-election: Ian Gibson. He isn't the only one. Nearly everyone you speak to in Norwich wants to vote for Mr Gibson. The problem is, there are 12 candidates standing in Thursday's poll, and Mr Gibson isn't one of them.
The popular, independent-minded MP was summarily ordered by the Labour Party to stand down, without a chance to appeal, over what many of his constituents believe was a borderline issue arising from his expenses claim. Without Mr Gibson, Norwich North has turned into a very strange by-election campaign.
Surely in the closing months of the third term of an unpopular Labour Government, Norwich North, where Labour has a majority of 5,459, will fall to a Tory landslide, just as last year saw a huge 17.6 per cent swing to the opposition in Crewe and Nantwich?
Mr Barnett, who knows the outgoing MP, says the absence of Mr Gibson means it is "very difficult to predict" what is going to happen.
Avril Wellbank, a primary school teacher, has decided whom to vote for on Thursday: "It's a shame that Ian Gibson has decided not to stand as an independent. But I will vote Liberal and suspect many people will too."
In Crewe last year, thousands of traditional, old Labour voters switched straight to the Tories. And they said so on the doorstep. Voters in Norwich seem different, more independent-minded. Opinion polls and common sense point to a Conservative victory. It is just that not many are saying publicly they will vote for the young, presentable Tory candidate, Chloe Smith.
The strangeness of the campaign is underlined by the blurring of party loyalties: the outgoing Labour MP has "privately endorsed" the Labour candidate, Chris Ostrowski, but will not back him publicly. Mr Ostrowski, 28, failed to tell party officials that he was a member of the Conservative Party in his student days. Rupert Read, the Green Party candidate, was at university with Boris Johnson. The Liberal Democrat, April Pond, lives in a country farmhouse with a very Tory-sounding moat in the grounds. Ms Smith, 27, has portrayed herself as the natural heir to Mr Gibson – an independent constituency MP who will speak up against the party leadership.
At the Hubbard Architectural Metalwork factory, Ms Smith and George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, are being given a guided tour. Keeping a discreet distance is Edward Timpson, the Tory who scored the spectacular victory in Crewe. Is he here to bring a bit of by-election magic to the Conservative campaign? Mr Timpson apologises pleasantly, but he cannot give interviews – suggesting nervousness by party chiefs anxious not to draw comparisons with Crewe.
This restraint is odd, because Labour's campaign has appeared deliberately lacklustre. There is a suspicion that Labour has written off the by-election but will throw its weight behind the seat for the general election. But Tory memories are still raw of the humiliation in Ealing Southall two years ago this week, when their "Cameron's Conservatives" campaign backfired and Labour held on.
Mr Osborne declines the invitation to predict an "easy win" and says the Tories are "fighting this hard". Yet this pretence doesn't last long. In fact, David Cameron, who will tomorrow make his fifth visit of the campaign, has reportedly arranged a visit to the constituency on Friday morning, when the result will be declared.
Mr Osborne says: "If you look at the leaflets being put out here by the Labour Party, they are a reflection of the line that Gordon Brown has tried to run over the last month, which is that there is a choice between Tory cuts and Labour spending. Sometimes by-elections do flush out attempts by parties to peddle a dishonest line. You saw in Crewe the attempt by the Labour Party to run a whole campaign about the personal backgrounds of our candidate and myself and David Cameron, and that backfired. I think you may see this Labour campaign in Norwich North come to a similar fate."
On Thursday, he will probably be proved right. But the voters of Norwich North are unlikely to have the MP they really want.