8 May 2014

Ukip: on the campaign trail with Roger Helmer

It’s now clear Ukip got a huge struggle on their hands if they hope to gain their first elected MP in the Newark by-election on 5 June.

A quick visit to the seat on Thurday showed that in pure organisation the Tory campaign is well ahead not just of Nigel Farage‘s party, but all their rivals. The Tories chose their candidate, Robert Jenrick last autumn. They’ve already opened five offices across the constituency, and are already doing their first leaflet drop. And on Friday the Tories welcome their first senior minister to the seat.

Read more: Nigel Farage says he will not stand in Newark by-election

Ukip, in contrast, only chose Roger Helmer as their candidate on Tuesday, following last week’s speculation that their leader Farage might contest the election. And yet anyone with any knowledge of politics could have told Ukip months ago that a by-election was quite likely in the constituency given that the sitting MP, former Tory Patrick Mercer was under investigation.

There have long been stories he might quit his seat to force a by-election ever since he was “stung” in a joint expose by BBC Panorama and the Daily Telegraph last year. Talking to people in the town today I got the impression that Mr Helmer hasn’t caught the local imagination in the way that the charismatic Nigel Farage might have done.

‘New lease of life’

At the age of 70, Mr Helmer would, if successful, be the oldest person to win a by-election in many decades. And yet more than two years ago he was talking of retiring from the European Parliament on the grounds of age. Quitting the Tories to join Ukip has given him a “new lease of life” Mr Helmer insists.

And new opinions it seems, since Mr Helmer has spent the past few days fighting to fight attacks on his past views on issues such as gay rights and rape by saying that his views have changed. Only today, when I approached him in Newark’s market square, he didn’t want to discuss such matters.

Labour won Newark in the Blair landslide of 1997, though the boundaries were more favourable then. Yet as the runner-up in 2010, Labour ought to be the main challenger here, but will be happy retain second place. Tory Robert Jenrick, a business director with Christie’s auctioneers, is less than half Helmer’s age – just 32 – though he looks even younger. He seems competent and affable, though Tory minders have been over protective of him.

Read more: the Ukip donor who says gay people are incapable of lover

The Liberal Democrats in the town were due to meet tonight to adopt David Watts, a councillor from Broxtowe. It’s a sign of the Lib Dems’ poor hopes here – despite getting 20 per cent at the General Election – that only two people applied for the nomination. Time was when a seat like this would have been a good prospect for a Liberal Democrat by-election shock. Now the Liberal Democrat support is merely something for Labour and Ukip to squeeze.

As thing stand, with the Labour, Lib Dem and Ukip campaigns barely started yet, the Conservatives must be strong favourites, especially when Patrick Mercer had a formidable 16,000 majority and almost 54 per cent of the vote. But there are still four weeks to go. The local and European results later this month could easily change the dynamics of this contest.

Follow @MichaelLCrick on Twitter