In the first part of a special two-part feature, Ian Dunt travels to Hampshire to visit the seats which just might decide the general election.
By Ian Dunt
This is part one of a special two-part feature. The second part will be published in tomorrow's politics.co.uk.
Hampshire should, by the laws of natural justice, belong to the Conservatives. The rolling fields, high standards of living, well-to-do country houses and pebble stone high streets all scream Conservative. I should know. I grew up here.
There are two ways to leave home. One is to leave and never look back, the other is to leave and constantly look back, dreaming silly, sentimental dreams. I'm firmly in the former category. Some of my friends who moved to London still say they're from Hampshire, but I started calling myself a Londoner within weeks of arriving in the capital. You can do that in London. It accepts all comers, although it occasionally chews them up and spits them out as well.
Winchester, Hampshire's county town, also happened to be where I had one of the most important political experiences of my childhood. Back on that night in 1997, Mark Oaten, now famous for his rent boy escapades, beat the Tory incumbent Gerry Malone by two votes. I remember watching my parents look at each other in disbelief as the result was announced. "Those were our two votes," my father told my mother. That's a pretty good lesson in the importance of voting and the beauty of democracy for any child. Malone protested and the high court called for a by-election. The voters of Winchester subsequently punished Malone harshly for being a bad loser, granting Oaten 37,006 votes to Malone's 15,450. That's Hampshire for you: stubborn, and with its own unique, unpredictable principles.
That acute personality is on show when I go canvassing with Martin Tod, the Lib Dem candidate in Winchester, who's taking over from Oaten. I'm here for three days, checking out the lay of the land in the Golden Triangle, the Lib Dem's collection of three important Hampshire seats: Winchester, Eastleigh, and Romsey and Southampton North. But this isn't just a local issue. The Tories need to win seats off the Liberal Democrats to earn a majority. If the Golden Triangle holds firm, David Cameron's entire project could fall apart.
Tod targets areas with older voters during the day and then goes to family areas in the evening, when people are back from work. It's 11 in the morning and the opening salvos are not encouraging. One man in a wheelchair assures Tod he won't be voting for anyone. "Could you honestly support this?" he asks, clearly beset with rage over expenses. But bring up Oaten and his opinion is more surprising. The flats had had some difficult with the TV licence authorities and Oaten had stepped in. The story was more complicated than that but I lost interest, which is one of many, many reasons why I would make a disastrous constituency MP. "If he was standing, I would vote for that Oaten," he tells us. "It's bloody sad he got caught up in what he got caught up in. He's been a bloody good bloke for Winchester." Another voter gives us a similar assessment. "We've had good luck with the last one," she tells us. "No matter what he got caught up in he's been a good parliamentarian for this city."
I'm surprised by the loyalty the people of Winchester have towards Oaten, given his reputation in Westminster has been framed entirely around his "unspeakable act" with a rent boy. "He's incredibly popular because he's done a really good job," Tod tells me. "Mark is always on people's side. He will always stand alongside people who are being hassled by the powers that be."
Tod is pleasant company. Funny, geeky and excitable, there is a slightly bumbling quality to him, but it comes across as mildly eccentric rather than incompetent. The next door we knock on sees an elderly man say he will only vote for him if he helps him fix up the house. "I want you to come back here after the election and help me fix my carpet," he tells Tod.
"You want me to come here and fix your carpet?"
"Not just the carpet. I want you to take the furniture to the dump too. I'll pay you."
"Christ don't do that," Tod warns. "It'll be all over the Hampshire Chronicle."
We retreat to a pub where I ask Tod if the leaders' TV debates, which saw Nick Clegg's popularity reach previously unthinkable levels, have caused a marked improvement on the doorstep. "We'd already seen a move in our favour, but since the debate the effect has been quite marked," he says. "We've also had a lot of people coming to help. There's a whole bunch of new members now.
"Obviously the scale of what's happened has taken everyone by surprise and it requires all of us to change a bit, in terms of how the campaign runs. In a seat like Winchester, you've got two large, well organised parties head-to-head, and it can get like trench warfare. It's quite intense. Every yard is heavily fought for. Suddenly you get this genuine shift in mood that shifts through the entire country and constituency, and we've had to adjust to it. We have to look at our leaflets and think 'this isn't quite right - we haven't bottled enough of Nick and what he did to the national debate'.
"One of the things round here the Conservatives have consistently got wrong is that we're idiots who don't know what we're doing. But then we beat them, so where does that leave them?"
Steve Brine, the Conservative candidate in Winchester, has a different assessment. He thinks the debate has made no difference at all. I ask him if 'Cleggmania', a phrase so irritating I can barely get it out of my mouth, is merely a daydream of bored journalists. "It's just the Westminster bubble," he informs me. "I'm a former journalist and completely appreciate you guys like a story and the story of 'Nick Who' becomes Nick Clegg, that's a good story for you guys. But people in Winchester are smart and they don't want to be dictated to by - with respect - the national media. If anything, it's made my message clearer: if you vote Lib Dem here, you will either get a Labour government with Gordon or a hung parliament with Gordon propped up by 'I agree with Nick'."
There's something rather icy about Brine, and he's not an entirely pleasant person to speak to. There's a frostiness surrounding him like a membrane, and I shift in my seat several times as we speak. I'm probably just being irritable. Brine was by far the hardest person to speak to on this entire trip. After innumerable calls to his people, I'm forced to follow him around a homeless shelter he is visiting with Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader who found a new lease of life as the party's social conscience. The Trinity centre is a wonderful place though, a barrier between homelessness and oblivion. I wait around as Brine and IDS do the tour, chatting with cooks and staff in that meaningless way they have to while the cameras do the real business.
The centre is just by the river Itchen, and as the visit goes on I gaze at a spot where I once kissed a girl, over a decade ago now, before she brutally dumped me. I'm now touring a homeless centre with politicians, so things have hardly improved.
Brine is at pains to point out his commitment to the area. "Winchester is a fantastic place," he says. "You know that, you grew up here. We have a big stake in Winchester like everyone else here." He's also respectful to Oaten, although with some added chill: "Mark Oaten is a very nice chap and has worked very hard for the area but he's screwed up and that's why he's going. Let's not hide from that."
I ask him what he makes of his opponent. Somehow I can't imagine the two men being friends. "This is first and foremost a positive campaign," he replies. "I have not put one single negative comment about them in any leaflet in three-and-a-half years."
"Has that been reciprocated?" I ask. There's a slight pause.
"No. No, their leaflets are full of negative and nasty attacks."
"What kind of things do they say?"
"You can read it for yourself," he replies sharply. "I'm not going to repeat it. That's up to them. Good luck to them. I would have thought that's hardly the new politics Nick Clegg espouses."
Every Tory candidate I speak to in Hampshire tells me about the Lib Dems' negative, personal attacks, but they refuse to give me examples, with the honourable exception of Maria Hutchings, Tory candidate for Eastleigh. Hutchings is in an interesting battle, taking on Chris Huhne, the former Lib Dem leadership contender who now has the home affairs brief. If the election returned a hung parliament, it's not entirely unthinkable that Huhne could be home secretary in a couple of weeks' time.
Regardless of his future prospects, he's upset Hutchings. "He's seen fit to put out a leaflet saying I've recently moved from Essex," she says. "I've been here two-and-a-half years now. His first registered home is in Clapham. Huhne said I'm all talk and no action which is absolutely and categorically untrue.
"The Lib Dems have been playing a dirty game. I wrote to the Daily Echo some time ago saying I hoped it would stay a clean fight and not get personal, but clearly they haven't listened."
I ask her if the TV debates have made a big difference to the campaign, but, like Brine, she saw no notable change. "We're perplexed with what the media been telling us but we've seen no effect at all," she says, in the cheery and polite tone which perfectly encapsulates her friendly manner.
Huhne is a strange opponent. A big figure in Westminster, he has a tiny majority and is particularly vulnerable to a Conservative surge. With a notional majority of just 530, he has every reason to be nervous. Hutchings is anyway unimpressed. "He is on TV and radio all the time," she concedes without any noticeable envy. "If you're a political anorak, as I am and probably you are, you catch him on these programmes. But on the other hand, people ask if he's on the TV and radio and writing all the time what does he ever do for the people of Eastleigh? So it's a negative as well."
It's the second time today I've been reminded of how the Westminster bubble can weaken your political analysis. As I wander home, the sun sets over some fields, the kind of fields the Victorians used to paint to make them forget the factories cropping up everywhere, and I notice, almost in passing, that I don't miss London at all.
Come back tomorrow for the second part of our feature assessing the election race in Hampshire