Looking bleak for Brown in Norwich North

Labour is preparing itself for a defeat tomorrow in the Norwich North by-election.

Graham Dines

An uphill fight for Labour

Labour is preparing itself for a defeat tomorrow in the Norwich North by-election. Political editor Graham Dines previews the contest.

GORDON Brown's date with destiny is less than 11 months from now. He must hold a general election by June 3 at the latest, but it's likely to take place four weeks earlier to coincide with local authority polls in England.

MPs went on their extended summer break yesterday and most will be well away from Westminster when the result of the Norwich North by-election is announced on Friday lunchtime.

From Labour's stand point, a recess by-election has the advantage of potential plotters against Gordon Brown being either on holiday or in their constituencies and unable to gather in dark corners to mutter against the Prime Minister's leadership.

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With the Conservatives up to 18% ahead in the opinion polls, it would be foolish to predict anything other than a Tory win in Norwich. Labour is defending a majority of less than 5,500 - a margin which looks pretty perilous in the light of current national opinion polls.

The swing needed by the Conservatives is less than was required in last year's by-election in Crewe & Nantwich, which they won comfortably.

David Cameron's credibility as a Prime Minister-in-waiting will be severely battered if the Conservatives don't win but Norwich South MP and former Home Secretary Charles Clarke conceded over the weekend that Labour faced an “uphill fight” to hang on - code for “we're sunk.”

What the politicians of all parties must remember, however, is why the by-election is being held. Labour MP Dr Ian Gibson quit following the expenses scandal at Westminster.

Of the so-called “expense cheats” who were exposed by the revelations in The Daily Telegraph, Dr Gibson was no worse than many other “honourable members.”

He claimed almost �80,000 in second home expenses on a London flat which he later sold at a knock-down price to his daughter.

But he was told by Labour's Star Chamber that for his sins, he would not be able to stand again as a party candidate. Given what he felt to be a harsh treatment, he opted not to cling on until the next election but resigned his seat, thus forcing an embarrassing by-election for Gordon Brown.

The electorate is still angry with MPs and Norwich North is the first opportunity in a national context for voters to show their contempt.

Tories, Labour and Liberal Democrats were mired in the expenses revelations. None of them can take a holier than thou stand, even though the Liberal Democrats are trying to.

If voters want to give all parties a good kicking, they could turn to the Greens and the UK Independence Party in larger numbers than usual.

But the likelihood must be that it will be a low poll, with those people who do vote doing so in order to give a clear message to Gordon Brown that it's time to go.

Charles Clarke said over the weekend that voters in Norwich had been angered city by Labour's “kangaroo court” disciplinary process that led to Dr Gibson's resignation.

“People do feel that Ian was unfairly treated, and many of our voters on the doorstep are concerned and raising it,” said Mr Clarke.

“It is an uphill fight, it's a fairly even battle I think between the Conservatives and Labour and we have been campaigning very strongly and very powerfully.

“But the fact is it's a hard fight as any by-election of this type would be.”

Whoever is elected, he or she won't be able to take their seat until October, when MPs return from the recess. This gives Labour nearly three months' to lick its wounds should its candidate Chris Ostrowski fail to win the seat.

As the campaign entered its final days, Labour took the gloves off with leaflets alleging the Tories would impose a wave of cuts in government ranging from claims they would cut the number of Sure Start centres in the city and would scrap free TV licences for pensioners.

In another leaflet, Conservative hopeful Chloe Smith was attacked for previously seeking to become a Tory candidate in Ipswich - a strange tactic to use, given that would-be MPs of all parties hawk themselves around constituencies until one eventually selected them.

Waveney MP Bob Blizzard, who is overseeing Labour's campaign, denied the party was playing politics by accusing the Conservatives of wrapping their candidates in cotton wool and not letting her debate the issues in a series of hustings.

“It's actually quite a sad state of affairs,” said Mr Blizzard. “The Tories are running scared in this by-election, and seem terrified of slipping up.

“They are more interested in TV and radio appearances than in having a genuine debate with people in Norwich North.”

At least there'll be no staying up into the early hours waiting for the result. The count will not get under way until 9am because of “logistics.” Broadland district council, which is in charge of the count, says that as the constituency crosses two local authority boundaries, a special system has to be put in place to deal with postal votes.

The result should be known sometime after noon

Under boundary changes, Norwich North will be a different seat at the next general election. It is generally reckoned that that alterations will make it a more Labour-friendly seat - so if Chloe Smith wins, she may well be a short-lived MP.



Candidates: Chris Ostrowski (Labour), Chloe Smith (Conservative), April Pond (Liberal Democrat), Glenn Tingle (UK Independence Party), Rupert Read (Green), Peter Baggs (Independent), Thomas Burridge (Libertarian), Anne Fryatt (NOTA), Bill Holden (Independent), Craig Murray (Put an Honest Man into Parliament), Robert West (British National Party). Swing required by Con to gain seat: 5.82%.

2005 result: Gibson (Lab) 21,097, Tumbridge (Con) 15,638, Whitmore (Lib Dem) 7,616, Holmes (Green) 1,252, Youles (UKIP) 1,122, Holden (Ind) 308. Lab maj 5,459. No change. Swing 0.6% Lab to Con.