Paul Routledge, in Harlow, regrets the likely defeat of Jerry Hayes MP from Westminster
It wouldn't be quite so much fun at Westminster without Jerry "Purple" Hayes, and that's why secret supporters of the Cabaret and Unionist Party are crossing their fingers for 1 May.

Jezza, currently fighting the biggest political libel action of the decade against the News of the World over allegations of gay sex with a Commons aide, is helter-skelter round the streets of Harlow, seeking to breathe life into moribund Essex Man.

Dodging from one grim Sixties terrace to another, he insists that everything is going swimmingly. "The worst thing every morning is the first doorstep of the day. Whether they smile or spit in your eye."

This is the man who was chinned by a six-foot mystery assailant last week, ranting: "I hate you f***ing Tories and particularly you, you slimy ****." They don't mince words in Harlow, the first of the new towns built to house London's overspill. They gob them out. Driving from a meeting with Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, Hayes is abused and gestured at by the driver of an ancient limousine. "Just stolen it, I suppose," he jokes.

The man who has represented Harlow ("the 't' is silent") in the Conservative interest since the Falklands election of 1983 needs a sense of humour. Anyone who lives there would. It is a virtual city of 75,000 people, apparently designed by gyratory road system engineers on speed. A place where "sleeping policemen" go to die, from the look of things, not to mention the makers of mini-roundabouts. Virginia Bottomley listed the town's passenger-hostile railway station as a heritage site. Then she saw it a few days ago on an election trip. "Oh, bloody hell," she murmured.

Hayes knows how to make people laugh. For charity, he parachuted out of an aeroplane dressed as a chicken - long before it was Central Office formal dress - in thick fog and landed on the head of the cameraman hired to film the event. He "whipped" Michaela Strachan, believed to be a celebrity, on television - but wisely drew the line at appearing as a giant penis on a late night programme on family planing. That may have had more to do with his devout Roman Catholicism than a sense of proportion.

As they say in the tabloids, he is now fighting for his political life. Harlow is 21st on Labour's target list of key seats. A swing of only 1.8 per cent will take it into Tony Blair's camp. If Labour cannot win here, it cannot form a government.

Hayes, a matrimonial barrister, is as confident as his fluorescent ties. "Our vote is holding up remarkably well. I am getting an average four Labour switchers every day." And the alleged sleaze dimension? "They say to me on the doorstep: 'It's disgusting the way you've been treated, Mr 'ayes, absolutely disgusting.' They have been brilliant. As a result of the 'sleaze' there will be more people voting for me."

Labour insists it does not raise the gay sex claims on the doorstep. But there is plainly still some mileage here. "There has always been a feeling that Jerry playing the fool on late-night chat shows is not doing any good for the constituency," says Labour's Bill Rammell primly.

Rammell, aged 37, a local councillor who fought the seat in 1992, sounds as if he ought to be straight out of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, but actually looks as if he is the manager of a Sunday football team. He was a north London child emigre to Harlow in the Sixties when they were still jerrybuilding homes there.

He is quite clear why he will win. "Jerry Hayes will lose because he is a Conservative. He has voted right down the line on Tory policies that have damaged this community: lack of investment in schools and the NHS, not equipping us with the jobs we need, voting for the poll tax and VAT on fuel. Jerry is seen as representative of that."

New hi-tech jobs are coming to Harlow, and there is a positive fever of private house building. But the burden of the charge is undeniably true. Despite his early rebellion on eye test charges, and his undisguised loathing for Margaret Thatcher ("She thought I was a socialist - I would have been in the Thirties."), Jerry Hayes is in the right party. And the national trend is against him. He got some friendly advice from circumferential Father Tony McSweeney on a visit to the Holy Cross Catholic junior school. "Just relax, Jerry," he smiled. "Let it all hang out."

It would be against nature to do things any other way, but Jezza's finely tuned sense of the absurd is set to cost him his seat. Westminster will be the loser, too. Can you imagine what it will be like with all those earnest Blairite Labour councillors?

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