Magazine article The Spectator

'It's a Fight to the Death Here'

Magazine article The Spectator

'It's a Fight to the Death Here'

Article excerpt

It may be a Lib-Con love-in in Westminster, but in North Yorkshire the Tories and Lib Dems are going toe to toe in a particularly spiteful election, says Robert Beaumont

David Cameron has said that the two most beautiful constituencies in England are his own, in Oxfordshire, and Oliver Letwin's in Dorset.

He obviously knows little of Thirsk and Malton, a small slice of North Yorkshire heaven, but the area will certainly be on his mind next Thursday. For here, the now supposedly united tribes of Tories and Liberal Democrats are engaged in a vicious local election, the first of the new parliament. If the nasty tone and temper of this rural battle is anything to go by, the national LibCon alliance hasn't a chance.

In the Left corner (or thereabouts) stands Howard Keal, a local Lib Dem bigwig with a strong base in his home town of Malton. A journalist and 'communications specialist', Keal does a fine line in killer soundbites and putdowns. Facing him on the Right is Anne McIntosh, a seasoned Conservative MP, whose fierce struggles with her local party have made her more determined than ever to win this jewel of a rural Yorkshire seat.

The rapprochement between Liberal Democrats and Conservatives has done nothing to soothe tensions between the candidates. If anything, in this part of the world, the realignment has only heightened LibCon hostilities. Activists on both sides have become markedly more partisan in recent days, taking a lead from the warring Keal and McIntosh. As one Lib Dem put it to me:

'There may be harmony in Downing Street, but it's a fight to the death here.'

So where's the love? This election, delayed for three weeks because of the untimely death of Ukip candidate John Boakes, should have been a gentle affair, a consummation of the Westminster coalition. A congenial contest in Thirsk and Malton could have shown how the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives can work together at the local level. It's not as if it is going to be close, with McIntosh quoted at 1-25 on to win by a Thirsk bookmaker with Keal trailing in third at 16-1, behind Labour's Jonathan Roberts at 7-1. (The young lady behind the counter at the bookies had her own take. 'Cameron said Clegg was a joke, ' she said. 'I think this coalition is a joke.') Voters across this sprawling rural constituency speak of 'election fatigue'. They feel rather like lonely guests left at a wild party.

Everyone else has packed up their passion and gone home. The coalition has imbued many here with a feeling of inevitability, a sense that their vote won't make any difference. Few, if any, feel cross enough about the coalition to switch parties. Their mood is one of resignation.

The real anger exists between the two leading candidates, Keal and McIntosh.

The reason that there is so much animosity between these protagonists, both preand post-coalition, can be attributed most of all to their combative personalities. But no doubt the animosity has been fuelled by their need to forge a coherent political identity against the all-consuming backdrop of the coalition, which makes local issues seem peripheral.

Post-coalition, Conservative and Lib Dem canvassers are still handing out campaign leaflets attacking each other's candidates and their policies, with the Tories accusing the local Lib Dems of wanting to bring in road pricing and join the euro and the Lib Dems playing the inflammatory expenses card. …

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