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Monday 11th February 2013 | 09:07
John O’Farrell, comedy writer and author of ‘Things Can Only Get Better’*, used Twitter the other night to chuck his hat into the ring for Labour’s candidacy for Eastleigh.
But the real worry among some in the Coalition is that things can only get bitter in the first proper Blue-on-Yellow by-election of this Parliament.
Lib-Con relations are to be tested pretty severely in the next three weeks in Eastleigh. A Mail on Sunday poll put the Lib Dems 3 points ahead of the Tories, just days after a Lord Ashcroft poll put the Tories ahead by the same margin. This is going to be tight on the night.
The concern among some Tory backbenchers is that there will be yet more ‘asymmetric warfare’, with the Libs allowed to play dirty** while the Conservatives are told to stay civilised.
The Telegraph reports today that Downing Street has ordered Conservatives campaigning in the by-election not to mount personal attacks on Clegg. This may not just be about Rose Garden niceties: don’t forget that in the raw electoral arithmetic the Tories need to woo, not alienate wavering Lib Dem voters (while underlining Huhne’s lack of trustworthiness).
But while the Tories are being told to play fairly, the Libs are up for it. Vince Cable said yesterday that he ‘relished’ the coming fight (and as if to prove it, he also had a Telegraph piece today warning the Home Secretary about visa curbs hitting business). Cable said: “It is the first major opportunity we have had since the coalition was formed to go head-to-head and I know that our activists will relish the opportunity”. Quite.
It will be fascinating to see how the Tories’ messages play out in the seat. The PM’s tough line on Europe could well shoot the UKIP fox. But the row over gay marriage is not an easy backdrop. Tory candidate Maria Hutchings is very much a social conservative on this, as well as on abortion. Mrs Hutchings may attract back UKIP voters, but she's not quite the cuddly, 'liberal Conservative' some think the party needs to woo rather than alienate 'centre-right' Lib Dems. Cable may get at least one wish: immigration could be a key issue, with the Tories stressing they are taking tough measures.
But some backbenchers feel that today’s social care raid on inheritance tax is yet another example of blurring the Tory message. Nick de Bois spoke for many when he said:
“In what is otherwise a good first step in dealing with social care, I am concerned that having built our reputation on inheritance tax moves, we should not jeopardise that and I hope we can look at other ways for paying for this. Some will see this as a tax on aspiration and that is not the right thing to do.”
Isn't 'aspiration nation' supposed to be the PM's new message? Backbenchers tell me they are constantly frustrated with the way No.10 shifts away from that central message set out (and lapped up) in his conference speech. I guess No.10 will counter that this is just the price of Coalition. But if the Libs hold on to this seat, watch that Tea Room muttering resume about the leadership.
There is one bright spot for the Tories, however. If Labour stage a proper campaign, they could just take enough lumps out of the disillusioned ‘lefty’ bit of the Lib Dem vote to help Mrs Hutchings win.
There would be more than a touch of comic irony if it turned out that John O’Farrell was the man who'd helped the Tories win the seat.
*FOOTNOTE: O'Farrell's memoir covered his years of misery as a Labour supporter in the South. His Tweet on Saturday night was typically deadpan:
“Ed Miliband needs someone in Eastleigh with a track record of winning elections. Despite this I’m going to offer myself as Labour candidate”
** David Ruffley said last night the Libs may 'play dirty'. But at least there is someone keeping the yellows on their toes. The Mail today has a snap of the Lib Dem candidate asleep in a council meeting.
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