From the youngest MP to the youngest ex-MP, if Harman has her way

A year after taking Norwich North, Chloe Smith faces an even bigger battle to retain the seat for the Tories

Time was when ambitious, smart, media-savvy university graduates with thoughts of a political career learned slogans like "the fairness agenda" and "a hand up, not a hand out" and were elected as New Labour MPs. Now they say "vote for change" and "big society" and run as Tories.

Chloe Smith, a Cameron-style Conservative, was the only MP in the last Parliament too young to have been caught up in the excitement when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown unleashed New Labour. Too young to vote in 1997, she was the first person to be sitting in the House of Commons while still paying off a student loan.

Now she may also chalk up another record: she could be the first woman in British political history to be an ex-MP before she is 30.

Having won Norwich North in a by-election a year ago, she would have been supremely confident of holding the seat a few weeks ago. But since the gap in the opinion polls between Labour and Conservatives narrowed, she is in danger of giving the Labour one of their few reasons to cheer when results come in on 6 May.

If she were unseated, it would be a sign of how politics has changed. Tony Blair used to say that Labour could win only if it campaigned and governed as New Labour. But in Norwich North, this young Tory MP looks more New Labour than her Labour challenger, John Cook. He is a tribal Labour man whose last job was as the party's eastern regional organiser in Ipswich.

In last year's Norwich North by-election, Chloe Smith did not just beat the hapless New Labour candidate, Chris Ostrowski, she slaughtered him, taking nearly 40 per cent of the vote and pushing Labour below 20 per cent. But the circumstances were exceptional. It was set off by the sudden resignation of Ian Gibson, a popular, independent-minded Labour MP who had represented Norwich North since 1997.

The party whips had told Mr Gibson that he was barred from standing again, because he had sold his taxpayer-subsidised second home to his daughter. Many suspected that his real offence, in the whips' eyes, was all those occasions when he had voted against the government.

By resigning immediately, Mr Gibson sacrificed the generous pay-offs for MPs who leave at a general election. In the resulting by-election, Labour was deserted both by those disgusted by the expenses scandal, and those who thought that Mr Gibson had been unfairly singled out.

John Cook is one of them. "I was a close supporter of Ian and a personal friend for 20 years," he said. "We met up for a curry a week ago. I am on record as saying he was treated disproportionately. He assisted me in my selection campaign.

"There was a lot of anger in the by-election, about the whole expenses scandal and about Ian, and people felt that they could have a protest vote or stay at home and it would not mean a change of government. People who did not vote last year, or switched from Labour to Conservative, are now saying they will vote Labour. I've got a very good chance."

Mr Cook's grandparents were farm workers. His father went into the police after national service. Now aged 45, he joined the Norwich Labour Party during the 1987 general election, and was election agent for both Norwich constituencies in 1997.

He was backed up by an impressive squadron of young Labour activists when Harriet Harman paid a whistle-stop visit to the constituency last week. As they went canvassing in Catton Grove, Norwich, they came upon 78-year-old Margaret Durrant, who did not vote in the by-election, but will this time.

"I can't remember where I was that day," she said. "It did not seem so important because it was only a by-election, but I'm definitely, definitely going to vote Labour this time."

There are no safe Labour seats in the east of England, but Norwich North is one the places Labour should win in a good year. Ian Gibson held it with 45 per cent of the vote in 2005. Since then the boundaries have changed in a way that helps Labour.

Ipsos MORI carried out an opinion poll earlier this month in the neighbouring Norwich South seat. Surprisingly, it showed no significant change in Labour or Conservative support. The only real difference, according to the poll, was that the Greens were pushing the Liberal Democrats into fourth place. Norwich is where the Greens have their second-strongest showing, after Brighton.

It suggests that Norwich South's Labour MP, the former Home Secretary Charles Clarke, will hold his seat against a divided opposition. And logically, if the Labour vote is holding up that well in the south of the town, it ought to be recovering in the north from its by-election low.

However, Labour's problem is that, having acquired a young, energetic MP a year ago, the voters of Norwich North may decide to stick with her.

Although she will not like having anyone say it, Chloe Smith is very like one of those smart, confident Labour women known as "Blair's babes" who were elected by the dozen in 1997. All that is missing is the bright red suit with shoulder pads which was the Blair's babes' uniform.

Aged 28, she went to a comprehensive school in Methwold, in Norfolk. Her mother once ran a bed and breakfast, but that does not mean that Ms Smith agrees with the shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling, who suggested that people who offered bed and breakfast in their homes should have the right to turn away gay couples.

"I think he was wrong. I think he was caught off guard," she said – which is exactly the same message that has been given out by the Tory head office spin doctors.

Ms Smith is far too sharp to wander off-message under questioning, although sometimes, when the question is unexpected, there is a notable pause while she works out the best answer. She paused for thought when she was asked whether she might have been a New Labour MP had she been 10 or 12 years older, until the internal voice of caution told her to say "No".

"New Labour, throughout its time, and the Old Labour that you now see coming out, are all about things I don't believe – interfering with family life, with business, with professionals trying to do their jobs – New Labour has regulated them to death. I'm a Conservative because I believe in the individual," she said.

As she was out leafleting in Hellesdon, a prosperous Norwich suburb, a sports car drew to a halt so that the driver could give her an encouraging thumbs up. He was Mike Barker, who runs a local tree-surgery business. He believes emphatically that Chloe Smith deserves to win, but he is not certain that she will, because of the preponderance of Labour voters in the centre of town.

"They're completely brainwashed," he said. "You're dealing with a society where they're used to being given [things] – instead of taking the opportunity to go out and get. But Chloe's a good girl. She is one of the most switched on MPs I have ever seen."

Her Labour rival does not share this warm assessment. "I finder her a cold person," Mr Cook said. "She talks a good script, but I don't know where her politics are coming from." He added: "I couldn't ever have been anything other than Labour."

It is a phenomenon of which we will see more when the new Parliament assembled next month – Labour MPs who could never have been anything but Labour, and youngish Tories who do not look like Tories. The New Labour project has been and gone.

Norwich North: 2005 result

* Labour Ian Gibson 21,097, 44.9%

* Conservative James Tumbridge 15,638, 33.2%

* Lib Dem Robin Whitmore 7,616, 16.2%

* Green Party Adrian Holmes 1,252, 2.7%

* UKIP John Youles 1,122, 2.4%

* Independent Bill Holden 308, 0.7%

Labour majority: 5,459
Turnout: 47,033 (61%)

Highlights of the day

By Kunal Dutta

Moan of the day

Has politics lost its punch? Yes, argues Terry Wogan, comparing the bloodsport of prime minister's questions with the cosier setup of the TV debates. "We expect confrontation," Sir Terry writes. "We got...timidity and lugubriousness with warm handshakes and a nice cup of tea."

Romantic of the day

Love is in the air but beware the wandering eye, a coquettish Business Secretary tells wavering Labour voters in a rampant bid to halt the Clegg effect. "You might start flirting with Nick Clegg but that way you will end up marrying David Cameron," warns Lord Mandelson.

Order of the day

The shoehorn award for most overheated election stunt goes to... Pizza Express. A new range includes the Gordon Brown (ground beef = "tidy and a bit chunky"), the David Cameron (with rocket = "posh") and the Nick Clegg (mustard = "keen").



Grin of the day

What a difference a year makes. Last May John Prescott said Mr Brown had "the worst smile in the world". But a new poll says the PM has the most trustworthy male smile after Stephen Fry and David Beckham.

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