Saturday shoppers in Chris Huhne’s Eastleigh constituency were forced to dodge groups of political activists who have begun canvassing in anticipation of a possible by-election.
The Lib Dem former Cabinet minister faces trial on charges on perverting the course of justice this week should a last ditch attempt today to have the case dismissed fail.
Campaigners from Labour, Conservatives and Ukip were all out in force with the recently refitted Conservative Club playing host to activists from as far afield as Buckinghamshire and Essex.
Officially, no one was prepared to admit to electioneering, but off the record people were speculating on the identity of potential candidates and ‘big hitters’ preparing to descend on the town should Huhne be forced to stand down.
First off the block this week is Green Party leader Natalie Bennett who is scheduled to speak at a meeting in town on Wednesday as part of a candidate selection evening. Ed Milliband and Boris Johnson are also names rumoured soon to be Eastleigh bound.
Eastleigh’s Labour party were fielding about a half a dozen activists in the town centre.
The 2010 General Election saw Huhne increase his majority at the expense of Labour whose supporters had been specifically targeted by the Lib Dems – even their first choice Labour candidate defected to the Lib Dems declaring that Labour was “no longer committed to realising the dreams of people like me”.
Shortly afterwards the Party suffered the ignominy of losing its last remaining seat on the borough council leaving it with just a handful of parish councillors.
On paper the town has a traditional working class demographic which should favour Labour but last May local voters preferred to stay at home resulting in a meagre 27% turnout.
Despite the lack of electoral support in the town Labour say they have started to pick up new members and recently regained control of nearby Southampton City Council from the Conservatives.
National polls may show that Labour has benefited from widespread dissatisfaction with the coalition parties but they will still need a landslide sized swing to even come second here, having polled just 3,000 votes more than Ukip last time.
Maria Hutchings – Huhne’s former opponent in 2010 – is widely expected to be selected as the conservative candidate and she was busy canvassing customers in a local café.
Since she was narrowly beaten by Huhne in 2010 Mrs. Hutchings has lent her support to campaigners fighting unpopular large scale development projects being pursued by the Lib Dem controlled planning authority
Last week Mrs Hutchings had been pictured on the front page of a local newspaper taking a prominent part in a protest rally against a proposed Sainsbury’s supermarket – a few days later the application was withdrawn and local Lib Dems have been anxious to play down any link between her intervention and the demise of the unpopular plan.
In contrast MP Huhne has appeared to be reluctant to take on the Lib Dem council on any matter.
While Hutchings has frequently been seen to take up cudgels on behalf of residents Huhne’s attempts at community engagement appear to be restricted to coffee mornings and fete openings.
Even so, local activism does not always translate into electoral success and conservatives were disappointed not to pick up any seats in last May’s local elections and did well just to hang on to their four Borough council seats.
The most conspicuous campaigners on Saturday was a placard bearing Ukip contingent. The Eurosceptics had chosen Eastleigh to launch their campaign for a new regional Police Commissioner.
Candidate Stephen West is a former special constable and a recent Ukip convert who up until a fortnight ago, was still a Basingstoke Conservative Councillor.
Ukip’s latest recruit kept himself in constant circulation pressing the flesh and even enthusiastically ‘high-fiving’ bemused residents.
When Ukip leader Nigel Farage visited Eastleigh in July he dropped a strong hint that he would stand if a by election was called.
Ukip, he promised ‘would give it all we’ve got’.
As one commentator put it, “Farage IS all they have got”
The seat is within the MEP’s regional constituency and his high media profile would boost Ukip’s usual slender share of the vote.
In 2010 Ukip’s Ray Finch – now employed as an aide by Farage – polled only 3,4% of the vote here while Farage took 17% in Buckingham.
If the ‘Farage factor’ causes more disgruntled Tory supporters to transfer their allegiance then would do so normally, then this might prove enough to wreck Conservative ambitions in the town. Frustrating the conservative vote would very much constitute a victory for Ukip – by stoking up backbench pressure for an EU referendum – one of Ukip’s political goals.
A Ukip spokesman said:
“We would welcome a by-election in Eastleigh as an opportunity to expose the fault lines in this incoherent and immoral Coalition government”.
The only party not represented on the streets were the towns ruling Liberal Democrats who are still standing, officially at least, behind their beleaguered figurehead. Should events this week go against Mr Huhne today then their loyalty may prove to have cost them valuable time.
One insider told me he expected Huhne to be acquitted but preferred to see a full trial in open court.
A successful dismissal hearing, the source said, would fail to silence “rumour and innuendo”.