Nobody can say that Nick Clegg has given up trying. He braved grey skies, drizzle and temperatures close to freezing yesterday to go out without an overcoat or scarf and meet voters in the constituency that is to be the first political testing ground of 2011.
The Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election is just a week away, and if the Liberal Democrats were still an opposition party, the pundits would be confidently predicting that they would walk away with it. Winning parliamentary by-elections has traditionally been the third party's strong suit, and in this seat they came a very close second last May, only 103 votes behind Labour.
Their candidate, Elwyn Watkins, has since succeeded in gaining an unprecedented court ruling which annulled the May result because the Labour incumbent, Phil Woolas, lied about him in campaign literature. The bad news for Mr Clegg, though, is that almost all the voters he spoke to in Oldham yesterday seemed reticent about saying they would vote Liberal Democrat.
The Deputy Prime Minister put on a brave face when asked about the poll of polls published in yesterday's Independent which showed his party on only 11 per cent nationally, their worst showing in more than 20 years. "Polls go up and down," he said, skirting quickly past the point that since May the polls have gone in only one direction for the Liberal Democrats – down.
One of the voters Mr Clegg encountered as he went door to door in the village of Diggle, north of Oldham, was an elderly lady – who asked not to be named – who voted Labour in May but will probably not do so again out of disgust. "I have met Phil Woolas. He was very pleasant," she said. "But when I read that leaflet, I wasn't happy about it. I was appalled."
But like other voters Mr Clegg spoke to, she was unwilling to commit when asked if she was going to vote Liberal Democrat. People here are not hostile to the idea of coalition government, nor are they much interested in the tuition fees row. But Mr Clegg met a lot of people who were less than forthcoming.
This by-election has been described as a two-way contest between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, which is not what it should be. Parts of the constituency were represented by a Tory MP until 1995, and the local newspaper, The Oldham Chronicle, described it as a three-way marginal – a description with which the Tory candidate, Kashif Ali, concurs. He means it when he says he is fighting this seat to win.
The question is whether the well-funded Tory party machine sincerely wants to win – or has merely taken its cue from a comment by David Cameron, when he said of Mr Watkins: "I wish him well." The Prime Minister knows that a humiliating result for the Liberal Democrats would add to the strain on an already fraught Coalition.
Mr Cameron will pay a campaign visit to Oldham East and Saddleworth today in what appears to be a push to firm up the Tory vote. But if that is the intention it seems to have been left a bit late. Other parties' posters appear to be more prominent. The Tory campaign has puzzled the former health secretary Andy Burnham, who has been in Oldham for two days with the Labour candidate Debby Abrahams, fronting a campaign against the rise in VAT. "That was a very strange thing for Cameron to say," said Mr Burnham. "It created a very negative impression of their campaign. It looks like they aren't really fighting the seat. I think they are misjudging the constituency if they assume the Conservative vote will go to the Lib Dems, or vice versa. This has traditionally been a seat where all three main parties poll well. We are quietly confident of winning, but we expect the result to be close."
Stephen Morris, who was out yesterday doing his best to interest people in voting for the fringe right-wing party the English Democrats, has also noticed Liberal Democrat activity, but claimed to have seen no Conservative canvassers, nor even a Tory leaflet. "We can see it on the ground here that the Conservatives are just making a token effort. They are not taking it seriously," he claimed.
Faced with such criticism, Mr Ali, the son of Pakistani immigrants who was born and brought up in Oldham, said: "If the Conservatives are going to have an outright majority in the Commons in future elections, it's going to be by winning seats like Oldham East and Saddleworth. So we need to get out there and work hard."
He insisted: "The party is going out 100 per cent. I'm going out 100 per cent. We got off to a slow start because this was not a target seat in May, so we didn't have a campaign in place. But I had a 9 per cent swing and a 50 per cent increase in our vote despite the party not treating this as a marginal seat. I did that as a local lad and by working hard."
Oldham East: 2010 election (Result annulled after court ruling)
Phil Woolas (Labour) 14,186
Elwyn Watkins (Lib Dem) 14,083
Kashif Ali (Conservative)11,773
Alwyn Stott (BNP)2,546
David Bentley (Ukip)1,720
Gulzar Nazir (Christian Party)212