Election 2010

Is Balls heading for a Portillo moment?

The man tipped as Gordon Brown's successor faces an uphill struggle to win his seat. Andy McSmith reports from the battleground

Antony Calvert claims that he is too busy to fantasise about the "Portillo moment" of which, he hopes, to be the star. Anyone who followed politics in the late 1990s knows what a "Portillo moment" is. Its name comes from the shock the Conservatives had on 1 May 1997, when Michael Portillo, the man they expected to be their next leader, lost his supposedly safe seat to Labour's Stephen Twigg.

After all these years, people still go into YouTube to watch the moment when a dazed looking Stephen Twigg learned that he was a Labour MP. There was even a book published with the title Where You Still Up for Portillo?

Mr Calvert, Conservative candidate in Morley and Outwood, in Yorkshire, who owns up to be a "cheeky" character, thinks he can pull off a similar shock this year, by defeating Ed Balls, the man Gordon Brown would most like to see as his successor.

"Everybody remembers where they were when Michael Portillo lost, even if they were asleep," Mr Calvert claims. "He is a Labour candidate of similar stature to Portillo, who attracts similar animus from opposition parties."

The idea of targeting the Education Secretary began as a gimmick. Mr Calvert's campaign was not attracting any money, because Morley and Outwood looked like a hopeless prospect for the Conservatives, so he turned up at the party conference last October to hand out calling cards with the slogan "Get Balls out for a Tenner." Underneath were the words: "We apologise for the bare-faced cheek in asking like this, but there will never be a better time to beat Balls."

Mr Calvert, who works as a planning adviser in the private sector, had learnt some fund raising tricks when he was working for the Republican challenger John McCain in the 2008 presidential race – not from the lacklustre McCain campaign, but from observing how Barack Obama's supporters used the internet to raise money.

He became the first Tory candidate to post an appeal for funds on the internet, which included a message in questionable taste, in that it asked people to help him "castrate" the Labour Party. In the video he is heard pronouncing the word lieutenant in the American way. Even so, it raised £8,000-£9,000.

Mr Calvert says he has received more complaints about the mispronunciation than about his use of "castrate". "Cheek and wit and humour are a way of getting people interested in politics who haven't been interested before," he said.

A more important result of this "cheek" was that it alerted Conservative headquarters to the nuisance value of ramping up their campaign in Morley and Outwood, by making Gordon Brown's most trusted adviser work to hold his seat.

The Tories have opened an office in Morley's shopping centre, and all over the constituency you can see the advertisements by M&C Saatchi featuring Gordon Brown's photograph with ironic captions. This plays to the fact that, after 13 years of Labour Government, the Labour vote is soft even in its Yorkshire heartland.

"I have always voted Labour, but I am very disillusioned with them this time," said Kathleen Wood, a pensioner from Tingley village. "They are getting very controlling. So many rules and regulations." She launched into a complaint commonly heard in Labour's working class heartland – the suspicion that large numbers of immigrants are living off benefits. This is an overwhelmingly white working class area where people seldom come into contact with immigrants, yet it has been a growth area for the British National Party, whose leader, Nick Griffin, was in Morley recently for a fund raising rally.

"The BNP is almost the official opposition here," said Graham Teal, who has a stall in Morley market, and is a "probable" Tory voter. "Morley has six councillors on Leeds council, five independents and one BNP. The BNP councillor hasn't put a foot wrong yet, so people like him." However, none of those who expressed an intent to vote BNP cared to be identified. A woman who is switching from Labour said it was to protest at the number of single mothers on benefit. A trader from the southern part of the constituency, is switching to protest that too many of his customers are out of work. Both insisted that race played no part their choice: indeed they were happy to see an Asian doctor.

Joe Dockray has a pretty good idea how the political wind is blowing, because he runs a popular coffee stall in Morley's main shopping street. "A lot of people meet here and we talk," he said. "The way people see it is that the crisis is not my fault, it's not your fault, it's the banks' fault, but the working man has to pay for it, so people are looking for a way to protest, because it's just bang out of order. I'm Labour, usually, but I'm undecided."

Mr Dockray sees the Conservative vote growing, but only by so much. He does not believe that a working class area like Morley and Outwood would actually return a Tory MP.

Louis Wynne, a television salesman, 28, stopped for a chat with Mr Calvert, liked him, but went away unconverted. "I'm amazed I would ever stop for a conversation with him, so that's a success for them of sorts. I grew up in the 1980s in a council estate, under Thatcher. I don't know if I could ever do it to myself to vote for them."

Sarah Benson, who bought a florist's business in Outwood in August 2008, just as the crash was about to begin, has been put off the main parties because she has only heard them talk about education and health, neither of which immediately concern her. A lifelong Labour voter from a Labour family, she is switching to the Liberal Democrats. "There is nothing to put my place into Labour," she said. "If they said 'this is what we are doing for business' then it might be different."

Morley and Outwood is a new constituency created from a boundary change that Ed Balls vigorously opposed. Only about a quarter of it is in the old Normanton constituency, which he has represented since 2005. In most of the seat, he has had to start again to establish himself, through public meetings, leaflet deliveries, door-to-door visits, and a survey of attitudes to immigration.

The Labour Party knows from its own canvassing that its vote – which was nominally over 50 per cent in 2005 – is soft, though they reckon that by far the largest proportion of those who appear to be defecting from Labour are, in reality, either undecided, or unlikely to vote at all.

Mr Balls said: "It's obviously more complicated when you have had a big boundary change. It's a bigger challenge, and I decided that the only way to respond was to do a lot of work. At no point have I been complacent, but I also think people's memories in this part of Yorkshire are very strong. They remember the number of people who were out of work in the 1980s and early 1990s, and the pit closures. What I have got to do is work hard to persuade people to stay with Labour."

What is likely to save Mr Balls on election day is that, for all David Cameron has done to detoxify the Conservative brand, it still sticks in people's throats in this part of Yorkshire to actually cast their votes for the party that Margaret Thatcher once led. To beat Ed Balls, they would need a swing of about 10.5 per cent direct from Labour to Conservative, which none of the opinion polls suggest is within reach. But with the amount of churning going on within the electorate, anything can happen.

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