A Tory adrenalin junkie with the stomach to campaign on two fronts - UK Politics - UK - The Independent

A Tory adrenalin junkie with the stomach to campaign on two fronts

Campaigning with shadow Home Secretary David Davis - otherwise known as the Secretary of State for Haltemprice and Howden - is not for the squeamish. The first constituency visit begins at 6.30am at Old Hall Farm in the tiny village of Spaldington deep in the East Riding near Howden. David Jackson, a bluff but cheery farmer and agricultural adviser, is busy laying out a huge breakfast for his guest.

Campaigning with shadow Home Secretary David Davis - otherwise known as the Secretary of State for Haltemprice and Howden - is not for the squeamish. The first constituency visit begins at 6.30am at Old Hall Farm in the tiny village of Spaldington deep in the East Riding near Howden. David Jackson, a bluff but cheery farmer and agricultural adviser, is busy laying out a huge breakfast for his guest.

Mr Davis, who lives nearby, has been up since before 6am and has already attacked his rowing machine with awesome gusto. Fried eggs, almost orange in colour, the likes of which I have not tasted since childhood, draw excited compliments from the Davis retinue - two minders and a helicopter pilot. The secret, it appears, is to allow the hens complete free range over the farmyard so that they can feed off the odd dead rat in the barns. The squeamish among us recoil but Mr Davis, a former SAS reservist who probably once lived off dead rats during his training, smiles and continues to tuck in. Four spoons of sugar are heaped into his mug of tea but, unlike the helicopter standing by in a field outside, there will be no refuelling stop for Mr Davis for another 14 hours. During that time he will whirr around England and Wales returning by the afternoon to resume canvassing in this vast slice of the Vale of York that stretches to the outer suburbs of Hull.

It is damp, foggy and cold when we take off over Howden's fabulous church. "It's a minster - not a church," he corrects me sharply. By 10am we are in Monmouth, a Labour marginal, where David Davies, the local Tory parliamentary candidate, greets Mr Davis as he descends to a boisterous welcome from local party worthies - all recorded by a motley media scrum. Local Welsh Davies makes much of this similar name stunt as he welcomes "the real David Davis". National Davis plays ball with local Davies but takes it a bit far when he says to local Davies' wife "you married the wrong man". Visits to an old people's home and the high street last no more than 10 minutes apiece but the photo-op and the media interviews go well - a bit too well, actually. The BBC is in tow and records an elderly lady swooning at national Davis saying she would prefer him to Michael Howard as Tory party leader. This is duly broadcast on the main evening news bulletin - enabling the locals in Yorkshire to see "our man" on the telly. This is how the local Tories think Mr Davis's national duties complement his local profile - enough to meet the Liberal Democrat challenge.

Soon we are off to Weston-super-Mare, a Liberal Democrat marginal that Tory candidate John Penrose hope to win back. Mr Penrose takes Mr Davis straight to a drug rehabilitation centre where they have a cosy chat with two counsellors - again recorded by a scrum of media ratpackers. Then it's into the lounge to address 20 former addicts. Here Mr Davis excels with a mixture of praise, charm and encouragement. "Taking control of your lives is the most important decision you have taken by coming here. I congratulate you." He knows his subject but his listeners know it even better. They complain that after too short a treatment time at the centre they might be left to fend for themselves before they are fully re-habilitated. "That's why we've pledged 25,000 residential drug care places that should be for a minimum of six months," he says, to nods of approval.

Next stop is Oxford West and Abingdon. But there is no respite during the journey as a succession of hacks vie for the plethora of profiles and interviews with the man who might be Home Secretary next week, possibly an ex-MP (were he to lose his marginal seat) or conceivably a future leader of the Tory party.

He thrives on it and genuinely likes the thrill and excitement. He shouts over the helicopter headphones that he is "an adrenalin junkie - as was Mrs Thatcher". Although aged 55, he looks trim, with matinee idol looks that make him appear 10 years younger. A former grammar school boy, he became a director of Tate and Lyle before entering Parliament in 1987. (Now we know where the passion for sugar comes from!) He uses military metaphors to illustrate his political battles. Why did his majority slump at the 2001 election and does he worry about the Liberal Democrat threat? "Last time we sent too many troops to the next-door Labour marginal in Selby but I believe we can win again."

This time though it's all hands on deck as Jon Neal, 29, the Liberal Democrat candidate who fought the Haltemprice and Howden seat in 2001 came within 1,903 votes of becoming the MP. Mr Neal lives in Howden. When I ask him whether he is feeling the strain of being on the campaign trail for nearly a fortnight he responds sharply that his campaign began a minute after the result was declared four years ago. He dismisses the suggestion that he is all things to all men and women and insists that the same message goes to Labour voters "whose candidate cannot win" as to soft Tories scared of Michael Howard. On local income tax, Mr Neal appears better briefed than his leader, but acknowledges there will be some losers, although he believes they are likely to be Tory voters anyway. He thinks that a large proportion of pensioners will buy into the policy, while Mr Davis contends that the Tory discount of up to £500 off the council tax will also be attractive to this crucial group of voters. But the Tories are angry that Mr Neal misled voters about a leaflet suggesting that they supported Labour's tuition fees. He contends it was a mistake and says, "I'll apologise to Mr Davis at the count."

There is no sign of any Labour campaign. They polled 6,898 last time and Mr Neal is chasing these votes. In the neighbouring Beverley and Holderness constituency, Labour were only 811 votes behind, with the Liberal Democrats in third place. I suspect that Labour are leaving the field clear for Mr Neal, while the Liberal Democrats are reciprocating in the adjacent seat.

Both candidates find it difficult to find voters at home during the day and the crucial door-knocking does not really get going until late afternoon. This helps Mr Davis to make the most of his daytime when he is undertaking his national tours. It's lunchtime when we touch down in Oxford West and Abingdon and link up in Oxford for a walkabout with the sparky Tory, Amanda McLean, who is trying to wrest the seat back from the Liberal Democrat, Evan Harris. Ms McLean introduces Mr Davis to her shock troops - an army of Tory students from the university. He greets them enthusiastically. "Get her in or I'll hold you all personally responsible," he says with his natural charm. But there is more than a hint of menace as he orders them into battle.

Within minutes we are off to Kettering, where Labour's Phil Sawford is defending a wafer-thin majority. The Tory candidate, Philip Hollobone, pitches up with Andrew Griffiths, standing in neighbouring Corby, and Peter Bone, candidate for Wellingborough - both Labour marginals - outside the police station for a photocall with Mr Davis. A homeless young man is about to go inside to report under his conditions of bail but he seizes the opportunity to lurk around Mr Davis as the cameras roll. The minders look anxious. But the down and out turns out to be friend, not foe, and blames Labour for his situation. The exchange is civil and ends with "hope you get elected, mate".

By this time the weather has closed in. We have been flying below pylon level and one or two of us are turning green. The pilot tells us "no more helicopter". Panic sets in among the minders but Mr Davis coolly commandeers a local worthy to mercy-dash us to Peterborough where we complete the return to Yorkshire by train. We end up only 45 minutes behind schedule.

Mr Davis is anxious to get back quickly as he has an appointment with 92-year-old Robert Kirk at his modest but well-kept semi in Hull Road, Howden. Mr Kirk's wife is in hospital, after a heart attack, but he has been unable to collect his pension for 10 weeks. The Post Office has botched up his chip and pin number and he cannot access his money. He tried the helpline, which told him his date of birth was incorrect on the records. Then he tried Mr Neal "but I never heard nothing". In the end it was time to call the big shot. "I finished up having to contact Mr Davis who went to town on the matter." Mr Davis says he was also given the run-around by the Post Office which invoked the Data Protection Act as a reason for giving the politician the brush off. In the end Mr Davis went to the chairman's office before sanity prevailed. Mr Davis is fretting about Mrs Kirk's health, and goes to check that the flow of pension dosh has been restored. Mr Davis is too shrewd (and actually too polite) to grubbily ask about Mr Kirk's voting intentions but I sense he knows he'll be suitably thanked on polling day.

Next it's on to North Ferriby, a wealthy village near the Humber Bridge. We end up at 9pm at an excellent local Italian restaurant worthy of the best in London. At the dinner table Mr Davis is fielding media bids for the following morning's Today programme. Over a disgustingly large blow-out he is juggling a BlackBerry (computer not sweet) and a mobile phone for briefings on crime statistics. At the next table a group of elegant British Asians has been watching this cabaret utterly transfixed. As they gingerly approach us on their way out I initially fear an immigration and asylum moment. But they turn out to be local doctors and consultants from Hull Royal Infirmary. Again it is a friendly "good luck" and "stop all that paperwork when you get in" that rings in Mr Davis's ears as, at 10.30pm, he heads for home. Once indoors he begins his preparation for the joust with John Humphrys via ISDN telephone link to the BBC after next morning's 8am news.

In the end this is a two horse race between Mr Davis and Mr Neal. Mr Davis must have the edge unless Labour voters decide to desert Tony Blair for the Liberal Democrats. Michael Howard will be watching this result with particular trepidation. If Mr Davis holds on he will be a serious contender to replace Mr Howard unless the latter becomes Prime Minister. It would be fun to be a fly on the wall to see the reaction of the Howard entourage when this constituency's result is declared.

Haltemprice and Howden

SITTING MP: David Davis

HISTORY: A suburban and traditionally Conservative seat created in 1997 but rendered highly marginal by the rapid advance of the Liberal Democrats.

Most of its acreage but only 30 per cent of the seat's voters are from the old rural seat of Boothferry, including those in the town of Howden, where David Davis has enjoyed comfortable majorities since 1987. In 2001, however, the Liberal Democrats reduced Davis's majority from 7,514 to 1,903, gaining 10 per cent mainly from Labour.

SOCIAL PROFILE: More than 40 per cent of the population are in professional, managerial or technical jobs, many from the middle classes of Hull. The constituency has one of the highest percentage of high earners in Northern England. The west is largely rural. Howden is attracting IT businesses and is now home to the national headquarters of the Press Association.

* EMPLOYMENT

Unemployment is low at 1.8 per cent. The biggest employer is the BAE Systems military aircraft factory at Brough on the Humber. After the merger with Marconi, it suffered heavy redundancies in 2000.

ISSUES: The area's prosperity has created pressure on housing and there is a potential clash with the Government's targets to restrict greenfield development.

There are also fears that the rising population in the seat may put pressure on its infrastructure and other resources. Most constituents are dependent on the Hull Royal Infirmary, which has attracted complaints about its waiting times and standards.

There are also concerns about ambulance response times. Crime is low but the chief constable is trying to make policing more visible.

RESULT 2001

David Davis Cons 18,994 (43.2 per cent) Jon Neal Lib Dem 17,091 (38.9 per cent) Leslie Howell Lab 6,898 (15.7 per cent) Joanne Robinson UKIP 945 (2.2 per cent) TURNOUT: 65.5 per cent

CONSERVATIVE MAJORITY: 1,903

CANDIDATES 2005

David Davis Cons Edward Hart Lab Philip Lane UKIP John Mainprize BNP Jon Neal Lib Dem

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