Labour candidate faces mission impossible in Norwich by-election

A seat held since 1997 seems certain to go Tory, says Andy McSmith

One of the biggest draws at this week's Royal Norfolk Show is the human cannonball. All human life was to be seen at the show yesterday, from scruffy teenagers with ice cream dripping from their chins to ladies bedecked in finery that would not look out of place in the Royal Box at Ascot.

At 2pm an ear splitting explosion silenced them all, fireworks threw up green fireballs, and the human cannonball shot out of his cannon to execute a graceful arc high up into the sky.

When Chris Ostrowski, Labour candidate in the impending Norwich North by-election, visits the show this afternoon he may well reflect that there is only one significant difference between his situation and the human cannonball's – the human cannonball has a net to soften his landing.

Mr Ostrowski, who is a member of Labour's Christian Socialist movement, will need the forbearance of a saint in the trials facing him until polling day, on 23 July. What he and his campaign team want is to spend three weeks talking about everyday issues, particularly the petty crime that is a particular irritant in Norwich. Instead, he can expect to be forced to talk over and over again about MPs' expenses, and the resignation of Norwich North's sitting Labour MP, Ian Gibson, and to be asked – where is Gordon Brown?

David Cameron has already visited Norwich North twice, in support of the Conservative candidate, Chloe Smith, now the frontrunner in a seat Labour has held since 1997. Yesterday Mr Brown was challenged to say whether he will visit Norwich North at all, and tetchily changed the subject.

Of course the Prime Minister is not going to visit an impending disaster. Quite apart from the convention that prime ministers do not generally take part in by-elections – which Mr Brown cast aside when he scented victory in Glenrothes last year – and the general undesirability of being near the scene of a defeat, there is the extra problem that Ian Gibson's resignation has left only one Labour MP remaining in Norwich. That is Charles Clarke, the former Home Secretary, who is behind the plotting to oust Gordon Brown.

Until recently, Labour faced the additional threat that the aggrieved Mr Gibson might run as an independent. He was popular locally, but was found to have sold his taxpayer-subsidised second home to his daughter for well below the market price. It was not the worst misdemeanour to come to light during the MPs' expenses scandal, but Labour's star chamber thought it serious enough to tell Mr Gibson that he was barred from standing as a Labour candidate again.

Many people who knew him thought this was unnecessarily harsh and possibly a way of silencing an outspoken independent MP. The local chairman, Martin Booth, resigned in disgust.

This is the legacy Mr Ostrowski, a product manager for the John Lewis Group, must deal with. The first opinion poll gives Labour 30 per cent, five points behind the Conservatives, but that almost certainly overstates Labour's current support.

However, one small relief is that when Mr Ostrowski, 28, was a student at the University of East Anglia, in Norwich, one of his lecturers was Mr Gibson, who is not now expected to run against him.

In these messy circumstances, it is a safe bet that by the end of this month, 27-year-old Chloe Smith will be the new, Conservative MP for Norwich North. She lives in the centre of Norwich, just outside the constituency border, grew up in the town, and went to Swaffham comprehensive school, where she is a school governor.

Her parents and grandparents also live locally. One of her grandmothers still works, commissioning and marketing postcards. Her father was a furniture maker, her mother was a state schoolteacher, and one grandfather was a vicar. She dead-batted other questions about her personal circumstances with the comment: "You can write up that particular part of the report as 'single'." She is indisputably a Tory in the Cameron mould – young, clever, confident, and in a well-paid job with one of the country's biggest consultancies. She even copies Cameron's hand gestures, consciously or not. Just like a modern Conservative, she speaks articulately, in a pleasant tone, and says absolutely nothing controversial. She was adopted as a prospective candidate 18 months ago, with no inkling then that she would have to fight a by-election. "It was good luck that we had a candidate in place who does not look like she has a duck lake or a moat," one of her supporters remarked.

An interesting side show at the campaign is how well the Green candidate, Rupert Read, will do. The Greens are unusually strong in Norwich, with seven out of 13 of the city's seats on Norfolk County Council. They are the second biggest party on Norwich council, with 13 seats out of 39, to Labour's 20.

Mr Read lectures in philosophy at East Anglia University, and if he were elected, he would not only be the nation's first Green MP, but arguably the greatest authority on Ludwig Wittgenstein ever to hold a Commons seat.

That would be deep and meaningful, but at present it is unlikely.

Norwich North: The result in 2005

Labour 44.8%

Conservative 33.2%

Liberal Democrat 16.2%

Green 2.7%

Ukip 2.4%

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