Gloves off as political allies fight for Thirsk

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Indy Politics

Forget the romance in the rose garden. Those wishing to see what the new politics looks like in Britain should tune in to the rumble in Ryedale instead. For here, in this most bucolic of North Yorkshire seats, with its honeystone villages and rolling hills, the gloves are well and truly off and the new order looks and feels remarkably similar to the visceral politics of old.

Thirsk and Malton will provide the first electoral test for the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition on 27 May, voters having been denied their chance last week because of the sudden death of the UKIP candidate.

The odds-on favourite to win is Conservative Anne McIntosh, whose notional majority of 15,000 looks like furthering a tradition of Tory representation in these parts which has continued, with just a single, brief interruption, since the 19th century.

But any notion of the Westminster love-in being extended to the northern shires is proving fanciful and insiders say the outbreak of peace at national level has, if anything, fuelled unprecedented levels of antagonism between the parties of the new coalition.

Liberal Democrat candidate Howard Keal, who was out pressing the flesh in the sunshine in Malton's handsome Georgian market square yesterday, said he had no qualms at waging a full-on fight against his Tory rival. He was happy to point out that Miss McIntosh was forced to repay nearly £1,000 for gardening expenses during her last term in Westminister, when she represented neighbouring Vale of York, and he has made an electoral pledge to attend to all his own horticulture needs if he wins.

"This is a gloves-off fight all the way. I have been dismayed at some of the tactics. One of the hand grenades that has been lobbed at us was the euro, and road pricing, which I was alleged to support. I have never mentioned the euro, which won't be on the table for at least five years. It is just a smear tactic that is pretty unworthy. It is a completely erroneous claim about me being made by the Tories," he said.

Mr Keal is urging Labour voters to act tactically to help him stop Miss McIntosh and insists the message is being received well on the doorstep.

"For us, going into coalition is a huge success and is absolutely to be welcomed. If the Tories had been left to their own devices they would have lurched to the right and we would have had the inheritance tax and other unpalatable policies coming to fruition," he said.

Miss McIntosh was also out campaigning yesterday, taking her message to Helmsley, on the edge of the North York Moors National Park. A veteran of 13 years at Westminster and a decade as an MEP, she is more than happy to fight fire with fire. She is urging her opponent to come clean over his and his wife's most recent expenses, paid to them as local councillors, which she says remain unpublished.

"I have nothing to hide. My expenses are a matter of record. They are all published online. But they won't publish theirs until June," she said.

"I had to repay the same amount as Nick Clegg. So if he is criticising me he is criticising his own leader," she added. "I feel a bit disappointed that he is besmirching my character with things that are not true," she said.

Miss McIntosh also takes issue that her Liberal Democrat opponent does not drive – something she says is vital in a rural constituency. "We are in the ascendency and the Lib Dem vote is collapsing across North Yorkshire. The feedback I am getting across the constituency is very positive."

Labour candidate Jonathan Roberts is keen to highlight the difficult positions faced by his two main rivals, though he says he wants the coalition to succeed.

But he added: "The Liberal Democrats cannot get away from the fact that a vote for them is a vote to prop up the Conservative government. I am saying to Liberal Democrat supporters that while we might not agree on everything our core values are the same."

He added: "Whatever Nick Clegg and David Cameron might do in Downing Street, out here in the shires their supporters have spent their entire lives campaigning against each other because they fundamentally dislike each other's values."

UKIP candidate Toby Horton was also happy to make mischief. "I am looking forward to seeing Howard Keal and Anne McIntosh standing side by side at the count. I think there will be a lot of teasing between then and now. The sight of David Cameron and Nick Clegg together in Downing Street might be very beautiful and moving but it won't play in Yorkshire."