Boris Johnson bounds in Eastleigh but can't solve the Tories' doorstep challenge

The Conservatives and Lib Dems are throwing money and big personalities at next Thursday’s by-election. Oliver Wright watches the London Mayor struggle to win support in a contest neither party can afford to lose

He came, he saw, he canvassed. But Boris Johnson struggled to find a single Tory supporter. The London Mayor may be the most voter-friendly Conservative to have descended on the Eastleigh by-election, but on Wednesday he had a torrid time on the doorstep.

The area should have been promising: an estate of neat semi-detached properties on the outskirts of the Hampshire market town, home to predominantly older residents.

But as Mr Johnson ambled amiably from door to door with the Conservative candidate, Maria Hutchings, in tow, it quickly became apparent that things were not going to plan.

At Number 17 Ian Patrick refused to shake his hand and complained that all politicians were corrupted by power. Next door, Anne Wright told him she would be voting Labour because of the state of the NHS, while across the road a man had already voted by post – for the Lib Dems.

“Solid Liberal,” the Mayor complained grumpily as he walked away. Or did he say “sodding Liberal”? It was hard to tell. Either way, the canvassing session was curtailed shortly afterwards.

A straw poll of a few voters on one estate is not a reliable indicator of the Tories’ prospects in this crucial by-election. But the celebrity canvassing foray did seem illustrative of the party’s problem.

It was well planned, with more than 40 journalists and photographers invited, and should have shown off the party’s support.

The fact that not a single Tory was at home (he did find one in the street) turned the stunt into a high-profile and rather embarrassing debacle.

Or as Boris put it more delicately: “This area was not the best of it.”

The lack of visible support backs up what some in the party say privately: that they don’t have the ground machine to know where their supporters are – or those they must convince to switch if they are to have any chance of taking Chris Huhne’s seat from the Liberal Democrats.

And that matters beyond Eastleigh. Because the result of this by-election next Thursday will have implications nationally – and presents unpalatable dangers to all three main parties.

Should the Liberal Democrats hold the seat, many of David Cameron’s already restive backbenchers will correctly ask themselves what realistic hope the party has of winning an outright majority at the next election.

The current Conservative strategy for 2015 revolves around holding its 40 most marginal seats and winning another 40 seats, of which about 20 are currently held by the Liberal Democrats. Eastleigh is the eleventh most marginal Lib Dem/Tory marginal with a majority of 3,684.

If the party cannot win a by-election against their smaller Coalition partner in a seat where the incumbent MP is facing a prison sentence and at a time when the Lib Dems are polling at seven per cent in the polls that winning outright in 2015 does not look realistic.

But the threat of Eastleigh – which they have held for 19 years – is equally great for the Lib Dems.

Their headquarters is on a light industrial estate near the station. On Wednesday it was base camp for over 200 volunteers, three MPs and almost every party staffer who is not working in Government.

The Lib Dems are throwing everything they have at Eastleigh in the hope of holding the seat despite Mr Huhne’s demise and the unpopularity which comes with Government.

They have chosen Mike Thornton, an Eastleigh councillor and resident for 19 years to fight the contest and are relentlessly focusing on local rather than national issues. They even have volunteers penning hand written letters to constituents in a technique copied from the Obama campaign and are using the same software as the American president did in his campaign to identify and appeal to target voters.

“Most people are polite and welcoming and it can be quite rewarding to persuade people to think about voting for us even though they’re not happy with some of the things that have happened in Government and what Chris Huhne did,” said Maria Wilder, a post-graduate student who has come to Eastleigh to help campaign for the Lib Dems.

“But it can take a bit of effort.”

In the back of their minds the party leadership knows that if they fail to hold on the current murmurings about Nick Clegg’s leadership will become significantly louder. Those MPs who are defending against a Tory challenger in two years’ time will see Eastleigh as proof that that they have been tarnished by the Tory brand.

And there is some evidence of that threat talking to voters. Jason Phillips, out shopping in Asda, said he had become disillusioned with the party over what he sees as broken promises in Government.

“They were attracted by the golden light of power,” he said. “I can’t see they’ve delivered on anything in Government. I’ve lost a lot of confidence in them.”

And what about Labour?

Despite coming third at the last election they hold two of the neighbouring seats and will need a respectable showing if Ed Miliband is to convincingly claim his party is in a position to compete again in Southern seats.

But the omens do not look good. Despite having a high profile candidate in the novelist and comedian John O’Farrell the party appears to be struggling to find traction. A stunt in the town centre was sparsely attended and there was no sign at campaign headquarters of the influx of volunteers Labour will need if they are to prevent their vote being squeezed. Voters said they saw the contest as a Tory and Lib Dem fight with the protest vote was going not to Labour but to Ukip.

And that is the real wild card in this election. Driving around Eastleigh Ukip looks to have the second largest number of campaign posters up in gardens and windows and growing support from the ’none of the above’ protest vote that used to benefit the Lib Dems in by-elections.

The party’s candidate Diane James is fluent and far from the stereotypical image of a male, middle-aged Euro-hater normally associated with the party. She claims to be picking up votes from all three main parties and several voters confirmed they were switching allegiance.

“I’m voting Ukip because of uncontolled mass immigration,” said John Cole just after meeting the London mayor. “I like Boris - he’s a character but that doesn’t mean I’m going to vote Tory.”

The former disgraced Conservative MP Neil Hamilton (now a Ukip member) claimed he had been out canvassing and at almost half the doors he knocked on people were thinking of switching. “The thing about Ukip is we don’t come with historical baggage,” he said without irony.

“There is disaffection across the political spectrum and we seem to be benefiting from that.”

While all the parties are talking up their chances next Thursday some appear more convinced than others.

The Lib Dems appear to be quietly confident on holding the seat, while the Conservatives are already beginning to make excuses.

Mr O’Farrell also says he expects to win although not with any great conviction: “It reminds me of 1992. Very fluid.”

But Labour lost in 1992, it’s pointed out.

“Err yes not in that way,” he adds somewhat wistfully.

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