Cleethorpes: the acid test for Cameron's victory hopes

Michael Brown revisits his old seat to find his party in a two-horse race with Labour
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Indy Politics

Back to Cleethorpes to clank my chains from the political grave 13 years after the flame-haired Blair babe, Shona McIsaac, ended my 18-year career as a Tory MP. My task: to identify the likely winner, haunt the candidates and find out whether "Meggies" have become Cleggies. Inhabitants of this traditional seaside resort are known locally as Meggies and, apart from the fact that this will be a close fought contest between Ms McIsaac and Martin Vickers, her Tory rival who stood against her in 2005, I want to know whether the locals are embracing the recent national outbreak of Cleggmania.

Ms McIsaac is known as "Shona" and has successfully managed to achieve local recognition in the same way that Boris Johnson needs no use of his surname in London. Her eight-page tabloid Election Special 2010 newspaper is entitled "News from Shona" and contains no mention anywhere of the words "Gordon Brown" or "Prime Minister". You could be forgiven for thinking that there is no candidate standing that actually represents the Labour Party. The Shona Party is, however, mounting a huge defensive campaign against the well-organised and well-funded Tory machine. The seat is 59th in the Tories' top targets and requires a swing of just 3 per cent. For the past 30 years whichever party has won Cleethorpes has formed the government.

Shona meets me for a fish and chip lunch at my excellent hotel – the Dovedale, just off the seafront – on a glorious spring day when Cleethorpes really does look as beautiful as San Tropez. We've become good friends since I "crossed the floor" from politics to journalism after she sent me packing in 1997. She has just celebrated her 50th birthday but is still the youngest candidate in the constituency. Her effervescence is as overwhelming as her hugs and kisses.

She knows she's up against it but is surprisingly chipper. After the European elections last year, which coincided with the expenses scandal (she was unaffected) and the attempted coup against Gordon Brown by Hazel Blears and James Purnell, she had pretty well resigned herself to defeat. But with the polls narrowing, and the rise of the "Clegg effect", she is now giving it everything she's got.

Next morning it's time to join Mr Vickers, who is a well-known local councillor of 25 years standing. At 60, he is likely to be the oldest "new boy" in the Commons if he wins. Born in the town he is as Meggie as a stick of Cleethorpes rock. He halved Shona's majority in 2005 and wants to capitalise on his successful campaign, which persuaded David Cameron to promise that a Tory government would stimulate investment opportunities for struggling seaside resorts. We meet his loyal band of activists in a traditional seaside café before a press photocall of the two of us (past Tory MP meets future Tory MP) on the beach. Another lunch at my hotel reveals that Mr Vickers is not likely to be the type of MP permanently "on-message" and, without being disloyal, he is not exactly putting Mr Cameron's do-it-yourself "Big Society" centre stage of his campaign. He is unlikely to be admitted to the Cameroon Notting Hill set should he get to Westminster.

I head off back to the Dovedale to meet the Liberal Democrat candidate, Malcolm Morland. He was once a Labour councillor but defected after the Iraq war. Articulate and forceful, he goes through the motions of saying he can win. He is also well-known and is a lecturer at one of the local colleges. His evidence for his prospects is that his party is in minority control of the council. Later the same evening he and Mr Vickers will put on their local government hats to spar against each other at a full council meeting. He says he does not want to overplay the Clegg factor – and although he won't admit it, his impact is likely to be measured by the extent to which he takes votes from the other two parties. I suspect he will unwittingly damage Shona's chances and make a Tory victory more likely. But he says he is taking votes equally from both parties.

This is a must-win seat for the Tories. Failure would mean Mr Cameron not even becoming Prime Minister of a minority Tory government. The odds given by the local bookies put Mr Vickers at 6/1 on with Shona 7/2 against. There's an outside chance that UKIP could spoil Mr Vickers' path to Parliament – last time the UKIP vote was only 600 votes less than Shona's majority – but, barring an upset, I suspect Shona will be joining me and Lord Archer in the Cleethorpes ex-MPs' party.

Cleethorpes 2005 result

Labour Shona McIsaac, 18,889 (43.3 per cent)

Conservative Martin Vickers, 16,247 (37.3 per cent)

Lib Dem Geoff Lowis, 6,437 (14.8 per cent)

UKIP William Hardie 2,016 (4.6 per cent)

Labour majority 2,642; Turnout: 43,589 (61.6 per cent); Swing required for Conservatives to win in 2010: 3.05 per cent