Formerly safe Conservative seat pitched into political spotlight

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Indy Politics

For a short while David Nolan believed he was about to be thrown into battle after David Davis's resignation as an MP.

As the prospective Liberal Democrat candidate for Haltemprice and Howden, he could have expected to fly his party's flag in next month's by-election.

As Mr Nolan was digesting the dramatic news, Lord Rennard, the Liberal Democrat elections supremo, rang with bad news: the party would be giving Mr Davis a free run. The decision will shock some Liberal Democrats who have cast covetous eyes on the East Yorkshire constituency.

They have long been the main challengers to the former shadow home secretary and cut his majority to less than 2,000 seven years ago. Despite the high profile of the Tory incumbent, the Liberal Democrats might have hoped to pull off a famous victory in the febrile atmosphere of a by-election.

Mr Nolan put a brave face on the decision yesterday. "It happened without warning and it is certainly unusual," he said. "But we have consulted within the party. We agree with David Davis on the issue of 42 days and don't want to challenge him."

The constituency – a mixture of prosperous countryside and middle-class suburbs of Hull – ought to be safe Conservative territory. But the Liberal Democrats made steady inroads into the Tory vote in the area in the 1990s, enabling them to single it out as a top target in the 2001 general election. Mr Davis saw his majority slashed from 7,514 to 1,903 in that contest, raising Liberal Democrat hopes they could oust him the next time round.

In 2005 he was one of four Shadow Cabinet members named on the party's "decapitation" list of senior Tories they hoped to remove from the Commons.

In the event only one – the education spokesman Tim Collins – was ousted and Mr Davis increased his majority to 5,116. His impact as shadow home secretary and his brand of right-wing populism over the previous four years undoubtedly helped to boost his vote.

Mr Davis has lived in the area for more than 20 years, representing Boothferry between 1987 and 1997 before switching to the new seat of Haltemprice and Howden.

Duncan Gilmour, chairman of his constituency party, disclosed that Mr Davis floated the idea of forcing the by-election early in the week. He added: "David is a man of principle and we fully back him."

It will be a strange campaign for Tory activists as they try to rally support for a contest in which there is no serious challenger.

But Mr Nolan is keen to emphasis that the usual hostilities are only suspended until the next general election. "When he stands as a Conservative candidate we will oppose him on his record and on the issues on which we completely disagree with him," he said.

Tory roots in the East Riding

The constituency of Haltemprice and Howden in the East Riding of Yorkshire was created by boundary changes in 1997. The area is rural and stretches from the edge of Goole to the edge of Hull. Its main town is Beverley.

In the 2005 general election, David Davis was returned with a majority of 5,116, despite the Liberal Democrats targeting him as a prize scalp in their "decapitation" strategy of unseating senior Tories.

The size of Mr Davis's majority has fluctuated wildly since the Labour landlside of 1997, when he won with a 7,514 majority. In 2001, however, his lead slumped to 1,903.