Stick to your peas and Q's, Mandy

HARTLEPOOL – whose townspeople hung a monkey because they believed it to be a French spy –has been the butt of unkind jokes since the heyday of the music halls.

HARTLEPOOL - whose townspeople hung a monkey because they believed it to be a French spy -has been the butt of unkind jokes since the heyday of the music halls. The effete Peter Mandelson didn't add to its reputation when, allegedly, he walked into a fish and chip shop in one of the poorest parts of town and mistook mushy peas for guacamole.

It's a town I know well, having been educated and brought up there. In 1959, at the height of the Harold Macmillan premiership, it actually elected a Conservative MP by a majority of 186, a seat held by the Tories for just five years.

Now it is facing a by-election following the elevation of Mr Mandelson to Brussels as the UK's European commissioner. The result will not be the election of another Tory MP. If any party is to wrest the seat from Labour, it will be the Liberal Democrats, although Robert Kilroy-Silk is said to be interested in having a go for the UK Independence Party.

The latest opinion poll is damning for the Tories and leader Michael Howard. The electorate may have a poor opinion of Labour and totally distrust Tony Blair, but after Howard's bizarre and contemptible manoeuvring over last year's Iraq vote in the Commons, the Tories stand on just 28% - the same as the Liberal Democrats. Labour is on 30%.


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This puts Labour on course for another comfortable General Election victory, although there was some relief for the Tories in last week's batch of local authority by-elections. A projection based on four contests where the three main parties fought this time and previously suggests a nationwide line-up of Tory 41.8%, Lib Dem 27.3%, and Lab 26.0%.

Although it must be stressed that in most of these, the main battle was between the Tories and Lib Dems, the results indicate that even if the General Election is held on the same day as next year's county council elections, the Tories ought to take control of county hall in Suffolk.

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Tories in Harwich shouldn't get too excited, however. The Clacton Pier by-election to Tendring district council produced a 0.1% swing from Labour to the Tories, with UKIP putting up enough of a strong performance in third place to suggest the party will do worrying well, from the Tory perspective, in the Harwich constituency next year.

Back to Mr Mandelson. Eurosceptics against the Constitution were dancing with delight at his appointment. Labour MP Ian Davidson said: "As someone who is going to be campaigning against the European constitution, the prospect of campaigning against Peter Mandelson running a European superstate is worth a couple of million votes at least."

This is dubious logic. Euro commissioners have to remain politically neutral and it's unlikely Mr Mandelson will play any role in the referendum campaign on the Constitution.

My advice to Mandy during the referendum is: keep your head down and try to persuade the bon viveurs of the Grand Place in Brussels to sample the delights of Hartlepool's mushy peas.

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