WITH speculation that the next general election will be on Ma 3, or even earlier, party workers are preparing for the fight. Political Editor FIONA SCOTT looks at the battleground in Coventry and Warwickshire.
SHOPPERS' reactions were mixed when Shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe took a walk up the wintry side of The Parade in Leamington to boost the Conservatives' campaign in a key marginal seat.
The plain-speaking politician thrilled Jan Sherlock by simply speaking to the Tory supporter for a few minutes. Afterwards radiant Mrs Sherlock, of Valley Road, Lillington, Leamington, said: "It's brilliant. She's a brilliant lady.
"I was surprised to see her there."
But it wasn't all good news for Miss Widdecombe as she posed for photographs in front of the statue of Queen Victoria which famously moved one inch on its plinth after a particularly heavy bombing raid in the Second World War.
A younger woman passing by with a friend took one look at the devout Christian who advocated pounds 100 fixed penalty tickets for people possessing small amounts of drugs and said: "She's vile, isn't she?"
Asking Miss Widdecombe to lead a Tory charge across the marginal seat of Warwick and Leamington may seem a strange choice with strange timing.
She is one of the few Tories to want a ban on hunting. Only six days before 5,000 hunt supporters staged a noisy protest in the streets, aimed particularly at sitting Labour MP James Plaskitt, who also wants a ban on hunting.
But doubtless other shadow cabinet colleagues - not to mention government ministers - will be popping into the constituency as the election campaign hots up.
For if William Hague is to have any chance at all of forming a credible government - or even a credibly strong opposition - Conservative David Campbell-Bannerman has to wrest the seat from the grasp of Mr Plaskitt.
Warwick and Leamington, once the stronghold of Tory Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden, is now the 36th Tory target seat. If they don't win it, Mr Hague could well be resigning the party leadership.
Rugby and Kenilworth is the Tories' eighth target seat. If barrister David Martin, a former MP, doesn't reclaim it from Labour's Andy King, who is defending a slim 495 majority, the party will be in meltdown.
Even with Peter Mandelson's resignation and the Hinduja brothers' passport row engulfing the government in a haze of bad publicity, Mr Hague faces a challenge to get into Downing Street.
If he is to have any chance of a workable majority he must gain Coventry South, where Labour's Jim Cunningham's held a comfortable lead of 10,953 over the Tories last time. The seat is 172nd on the Tory hit list and they need to gain 162 extra to win half of parliament's seats.
There was much talk after the European elections in 1999 that Socialist candidates could split the Labour vote so much in Coventry seats that Tories might be let through by default. But the turnout for those elections was so small - under one-third of all voters - that it would be rash to read too much into the results.
In 1997 Dave Nellist, the former Labour MP expelled from the party for membership of Militant, was trounced into fourth place by the Liberal Democrats when he stood in Coventry South. He polled only 3,000 votes, far fewer than the 10,000 he gained in 1992 when he first stood as an independent against Mr Cunningham.
At the next election, Socialists will field veteran anti-poll tax campaigner Rob Windsor in Coventry South. The Liberal Democrats have not yet chosen their candidates for any of the three Coventry seats.
Cllr Nellist, now leader of the three-strong Socialist group on Coventry city council, will challenge Coventry North East MP Bob Ainsworth, whose seat is considered safe.
He has given up the chance to mount a "Socialist against the millionaire" campaign …