Michael Brown: Out in Hove: the candidate who could herald a fresh start for the Tory party

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The Independent Online

It is universally agreed that all voters in Hove look up to Nicholas Boles, the 39-year-old Tory candidate, standing for Parliament for the first time. Given his towering height of 6ft 6ins, this is something not even his opponents can deny. He is good looking, openly gay, and the antithesis of the "Tory toff" his educational background (Winchester: Oxford First in PPE, and Harvard) might suggest.

I caught up with him, at his spacious flat on Hove seafront, dressed in his trademark designer Diesel jeans and short-sleeve blue T-shirt, emblazoned on the chest with "Nicholas Boles - Working for Hove and Portslade". Even when formally dressed he never wears a tie. The flat doubles as the office nerve-entre of the campaign. Pleasant young men banter cheerfully with the women party workers and the atmosphere is exciting, focused and happy.

Ivor Caplin, the junior defence minister who won the constituency from the Tories in 1997, is standing down. Many have speculated that he thought the skids would be under him and that, if he stood and lost, it would be it more difficult for him to make overtures to companies engaged in defence procurement that are likely to offer him boardroom opportunities.

Mr Boles was adopted 18 months ago and Mr Caplin's withdrawal has given the Tory a slight edge over his new opponent, Ms Celia Barlow, who has three children, (all still at school) who hails from West Sussex. She is a former BBC news-editor and producer and is now a lecturer in film-editing at Chichester College. She stood in 2001 for Chichester but was selected for Hove only a few months ago.

Mr Boles raised £10,000 to pay for a dozen poster sites in Hove to display huge images of him during the last month of the "pre-election campaign" in March. The election literature and calling-cards replicate the same images so introducing himself in street-canvassing sessions is easy. "Hello, I'm Nicholas Boles," he says brightly on the doorstep. "Yes, I know you are," booms an elderly lady, stating majestically that "it's not right for Hove to be socialist". She volunteers that she is actually a Londoner - "Mrs Thatcher was once my MP" - and orders Mr Boles to win.

It is not all plain sailing, although he clearly impresses many of those who will be voting Labour. "You're a lovely fella and I wish you were the Labour candidate," says another lady on a council estate. "I'm awfully sorry." But he is unperturbed and asks if she will take his calling-card in case she needs his services should he get elected. This is an urban constituency adjacent to Brighton. But there is a distinct identity although a single unitary local authority covers both areas. Hove's wide, elegant, Regency squares give it a grandeur that hide the modern high-rise blocks and council estates.

But, like Brighton, it is metropolitan in character. The two areas are often called "London by the sea" and there is a heady mix of Islington chic and wealth alongside social problems typical of seaside resorts. Cafés and exotic restaurants are staffed by migrant workers every bit as essential to the local economy as in London. Immigration and asylum are rarely mentioned on the doorstep and I sense that, when challenged, although Mr Boles defends Michael Howard's "controlled immigration" policy, he knows they are not issues here.

Unlike most Tory candidates' literature, the words "asylum" and "immigration" are not mentioned in his leaflets. He is his own press officer, dispensing with the front-bench whistle-stop photocalls. Michael Howard came several months ago but was put to work on door-knocking.

But Ms Barlow has been inundated with visits from cabinet ministers. In the past week, John Reid, Ruth Kelly and Harriet Harman have dropped by. But she steers clear of using Tony Blair in her leaflets, although her official phones afterwards to tell me there is a picture of her with Mr Blair on her website.

She has always opposed the Iraq war and is anxious that Labour voters do not drift towards Liberal Democrats. Although the latter polled only 9 per cent in 2001, any increase in their support, as a consequence of publication of the Attorney General's legal opinion, could help Mr Boles. To counter this, Ms Barlow's central message is, "If you don't vote Labour you will get Michael Howard in No 10".

I met her at a recreation ground after the schools had closed. She was in her element with the "school-gate mums" and well-briefed on local planning and developments about the proposals for a new ground for Brighton and Hove Albion. Bizarrely, she refuses to state her age and plays a tedious game of cat and mouse even when I told her this would become public knowledge if she is elected.

Many Tories are praying for Mr Boles to get elected because his presence in Westminster is seen as being pivotal to the Tory Party's long-term recovery. As head of the think-tank, Policy Exchange, set up by Francis Maude to take forward the ideas discussed by Michael Portillo when he stood for the Tory leadership in 2001, he will be recruited to the cause of "modernisation". Mr Maude says: "Nicholas is outstandingly gifted and incredibly hard-working. He could go to the very top." But, at present, Mr Boles, though flattered, is concerned only about winning Hove.

He will probably just squeak in, but this will be among the most nail-biting photo-finishes on Thursday. If he does win, Ms Barlow should not be disappointed. She is said to have already done well enough to be considered for a safe Labour seat at the next general election.