The knocking Crewe: PM faces by-election defeat

In this Labour heartland, thousands of voters plan to give Gordon Brown an unmistakable message by voting Conservative. Jane Merrick reports

Standing on the doorstep of their semi-detached home in Lime Tree Avenue, Crewe, Adrian Rankin and his partner Rachel Harris are on the threshold of doing something that even a year ago was unthinkable – voting Conservative.

Mr Rankin, a railway worker and union man, and Ms Harris, who works in the local hospital, have always voted Labour.

They are at the same time Margaret Thatcher's children and people who still harbour a deep hatred of the former prime minister.

But this week, along with thousands of others – if the polls are right – they will switch straight from Labour to the Tories and hand David Cameron his party's first by-election victory since 1982.

Gordon Brown's doughty attempts to fight back from his leadership crisis will continue this week – but advisers are left wondering why it isn't working on the streets of Crewe and Nantwich.

In Lime Tree Avenue, the couple saw on TV the measures announced by Alistair Darling to counteract the 10p tax abolition – in any other circumstances a £2.7bn bonus to millions of families – and it hasn't made a difference. A campaign by Labour activists wearing top hat and tails to brand their opponent Edward Timpson a "Tory toff" has failed to register in their minds.

And they believe Mr Timpson, a public school-educated barrister, when he stands on their doorstep and tells them that the Conservative Party has "moved on a lot" from the Thatcher era.

"I hated Margaret Thatcher because of what she did to the unions and what she stood for," Mr Rankin, 37, told the candidate. "But if you can come away from Margaret Thatcher and her policies, and what she stood for, you will stay in [office] for some years. I have been a Labour man all my life. I have worked on the railway for 20 years. But I will be voting Conservative next week and I will vote Conservative at the next general election."

Ms Harris says their decision is because of rising bills, lack of police in their neighbourhood and immigration. They worry that their three children cannot play safely on the streets.

If the Tories overturn Gwyneth Dunwoody's 7,078 majority in Crewe and Nantwich with an 8 per cent swing on Thursday it will be the first electoral evidence that Mr Cameron has fully "detoxified" his party to make it appeal to a broad spectrum of voters.

The result would be acknowledged by Labour as a blow, but will also be shrugged off publicly as a mid-term by-election where voters want to register their anger against a government in power for 11 years.

Yet even supporters of the Prime Minister fear that the people of Crewe, a North-west railway town and working-class Labour fortress, and its leafier, more comfortable neighbour Nantwich, where the gardens win Britain in Bloom awards every year, will speak for Britain on Thursday night. They fear it could be a damaging setback to Mr Brown's chances of hanging on to power.

By-elections of the past decade have tended to go to the Liberal Democrats in a series of protest votes against the Government. This time, former Labour supporters do not seem to be backing Elizabeth Shenton, the Liberal Democrat candidate, but are actively backing the Tories.

As a poll for The Independent on Sunday shows today, nearly 50 per cent of voters across the country do not believe raising income tax allowances by £600 to offset the effects of the 10p changes has solved the problem. Some 57 per cent think Labour must ditch Mr Brown as leader if it is to win the next election. Only one figure in the poll shows Mr Cameron is not yet home and dry: 46 per cent agree he has what it takes to be prime minister, only marginally more than the 42 per cent who disagree.

Back in Crewe, many people – even those who plan to stick with Labour – believe there is a momentum building which will bring a change of government in two years. They can't quite put their finger on the main cause; some say Mr Brown himself is the problem and nothing he does will change the public mood.

"I will vote Labour as I always do but we will no longer be a Labour town after Thursday," said one woman who declined to be named. Others said they have "just had enough" of rising bills for food, energy and petrol and want to give a new government the chance to make a difference.

Heidi Steen, a 32-year-old mother of three, described Mr Brown as "persistent, domineering and stubborn" while watching Prime Minister's Questions at her home in West Street, one of the main arterial roads that run through the town. By contrast, Mr Cameron is "charismatic, amusing and young". "Providing for a family is hard enough without shopping bills rising," she said.

But in the ice-cream queue outside Beechwood Primary School on Meredith Street, the road where Adam Swellings, the killer of Warrington father Garry Newlove lived, Sandra Massey has one encouraging message for the Prime Minister. "I am voting Labour," the 42-year-old mother of two said. "I don't think the Conservatives will do anything for the working-class person. If they get in they are going to cut education down to the wire, and my job will be at risk."

If Mrs Dunwoody's daughter Tamsin does hold on for Labour, it will be a shock to Mr Cameron, who visits the constituency for the fourth time tomorrow.

Most of his Shadow Cabinet have campaigned in the seat during the two-and-a-half-week campaign. The shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, who was given a tour of Meredith Street by local neighbourhood watch organisers, admitted it would be a "disappointment" to see a repeat of the Tory by-election campaign in Ealing Southall in July 2007, which pinned its hopes on "Cameron's Conservatives" stealing the seat but in which candidate Tony Lit came third.

"We are going to fight for every last vote," Mr Davis said. "In normal circumstances we would not expect to take a seat like this."

This weekend the Prime Minister ordered 80 ministers to the seat. Mr Brown has been criticised for not campaigning, but supporters said he is in a no-win situation. If he visits and Labour loses anyway, he will be blamed. If he fails to visit, he will be blamed.

A Labour spokesman said it was "unusual" for a Prime Minister to campaign in a by-election. But Mr Brown was on the trail in Ealing Southall last year. To answer his critics, the Prime Minister is expected to be on BBC Radio Stoke tomorrow. It will be down the line from London, but at least the radio station is 14 miles from the constituency.

Last Wednesday was the only day in the campaign that no senior Labour figure visited. Instead, Quentin Davies, the former Tory MP for Grantham and Stamford who defected to Labour on day one of Mr Brown's premiership, and Coronation Street actress Liz Dawn came together with Ms Dunwoody at a Labour garden party in a road in the east end of Crewe, also named Coronation Street.

A sharp-suited Mr Davies laughed off the "Tory toffs" campaign and said he'd had a positive response on the doorstep earlier that day.

The privet hedges surrounding the square of grass that Labour has commandeered for the afternoon were punctuated by Union flags and red balloons. To the left and right, neighbours went about their business, mowing lawns and picking up litter. In bright sunlight, the sight of Mr Davies in a red rosette mingling with Vera Duckworth appeared a little odd, even surreal.

Back in Lime Tree Avenue, Mr Timpson's canvassing was interrupted when the paperboy delivered the Crewe Chronicle. Alongside tributes to Mrs Dunwoody was the headline "Threat to 600 jobs" as the local sorting office faces closure. Mr Rankin said: "I used to see Gwyneth Dunwoody as a child. She would be disgusted at all of this."

Mr Timpson, sensing he had secured another vote, shook Mr Rankin's hand and said: "We are the way to get the change you desperately need."

Damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't

TUESDAY: 10p tax "U-turn" - Chancellor Alistair Darling unveils plans to raise income tax allowances by £600 to counteract the effects of scrapping the 10p tax rate.

Before: "Frozen like rabbits in the headlights, ministers haven't produced a single concrete proposal to compensate those who have lost out. Meanwhile, the prices of life's essentials continue to rise and those five million continue to suffer." (Daily Mail, May 7, 2008).

After: "One of New Labour's great boasts was that with prudence and economic stability there would be no more policy zig-zags or need for mini budgets. With his statement to the Commons on mitigating the effects of Gordon Brown's abolition of the 10p tax band, Alistair Darling has rendered that boast obsolete." (Daily Mail, May 14, 2008)

WEDNESDAY: Pre-Legislative Speech.

Before: "Gordon's problems are very deep-seated. He needs to make a clear statement on his sense of direction and get a momentum going." (Anthony Browne, director of Policy Exchange, a centre-right think tank, Guardian, 9 May)

After: "Could have been cobbled together on a beer mat by a couple of drunks at the end of a long night." (Daily Post, Liverpool)

THURSDAY: Media Offensive

Before: "Downing Street should show more of Gordon Brown the man: take him out of the SW1 bubble; disassociate him from party politicking; and allow his persona as an intellectual, Atlanticist, economist and sports fan to shine." (Tristram Hunt, historian, Observer 4 May)

After: Failed to inspire, or distract attention from complaints about his leadership. "The problem is broader than Brown's inability to communicate a vision. It is the apparent absence of a vision." (John Kampfner, The Daily Telegraph)

SATURDAY: "Sermon on the Mound" - The Prime Minister sets out his "global moral vision" before the Church of Scotland, in Edinburgh.

Before: "The great mystery is why Gordon Brown has failed to respond to this new moral climate. It is right up his street. Why hasn't he been taking the superrich to task over their lack of social responsibility, been demanding a new political settlement between capital and the people?" (Iain MacWhirter, Sunday Herald, May 11, 2008)

After: A lame attempt to relaunch himself, with a thin speech before a friendly audience. "If Margaret Thatcher delivered the sermon on the mound, this is the 'whimper on the mound'." (SNP deputy leader and Scottish Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon)