Open the diary folks – it’s one of those rare days when I agree with Iain Dale. Why should this be? Ah well. This state has been precipitated by the Eastleigh by-election and the appearance on the candidates’ list of one John O’Farrell, who will stand for Labour. The party came third in 2010, with its vote well down on the previous contest, so it appears a high profile name was the answer.
John O’Farrell has been a stand-up, author, writer, supplier of gags to both Tone and Pa Broon, and many will have seen him on Have I Got News For You. His support of the Labour Party goes back decades, and he has already contested a Parliamentary seat, Maidenhead, in 2001. But the Tory vote is, as they say, very strong there, and so he came a distant third on the manor occupied by Theresa May.
So what impact can he make in Eastleigh? Well, as Iain says, a personality candidate makes for great copy. Editors, even those on right-leaning papers, will look to flog a few more copies by talking up his chances. Both Tories and Lib Dems are stressing the ordinary and local nature of their representatives, and Labour doesn’t have even one local councillor.
Moreover, the party’s vote share was squeezed in 2010 – their less than 10% compares to more than double that in 2005 – possibly through the perceived unattractiveness of Pa Broon and the scrap between Maria Hutchings and Chris Huhne. So if O’Farrell can get that 20% - and a bit more on top – he could be in with a chance of winning on a split vote.
Of course, as Iain also points out, the contest should be all about Tory Maria Hutchings and Lib Dem councillor Mike Thornton. But in both cases, a problem enters: Ms Hutchings has exhibited a tendency to speak without ensuring she has brain fully engaged beforehand, despite the best efforts of party chairman Grant “Spiv” Shapps (or whatever other name he is using this week).
And Thornton is, well, ordinary. This does not have to be a handicap in a General Election, but at a by-election where the media descend en masse (like Crewe, there is a frequent direct train service from London), a “personality” will play well when the appetite is for snappy soundbites as well as policy snippets. O’Farrell will have the best jokes, because he’ll have written them.
The last thing that Young Dave and Corporal Clegg want is that their straight fight is hijacked by a sleb element, and if both coalition partners come away empty-handed, their parties will just become more restive and less ready to accommodate the other partner. But for Labour, with expectations so low and not even a second place since 1994, it’s worth the shot and there will be no problem if they lose.
Anything can happen in the next fortnight. Stay tuned!