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Friday 31 May 2013

Patrick Mercer – To Go

[Update at end of post]

Newark-on-Trent is geographically only a small part of the Newark constituency: much of the area is rural, with small villages and only Southwell and Bingham as its other urban areas. It is populated with the kind of people who readily identify as being “hard working taxpayers”. And what they have demonstrated they don’t like is politicians who appear to be on the make.
This matters in the immediate term, as Patrick Mercer, the seat’s Tory incumbent – until he resigned the party whip today – looks set to be exposed by a BBC Panorama edition dealing with lobbying. It’s all looking very Cash For Questions. And, having encountered some of the local Tory activists, I suspect they will not put up with Mercer refusing to budge until 2015. So we’re talking by-election here.

When Labour’s Fiona Jones was convicted of election fraud in 1999, even though this was overturned on appeal, the Newark electorate threw her out in 2001 in a larger than average swing against her party. Mercer might not stand again for the seat, but his remaining could taint the Tories, and that will only steel the local party to find a way to cause him to sling his hook.

So what are the prospects for a by-election outcome? Ah well. Normally, although Labour held Newark from 1950 to 1979, and from 1997 to 2001, the constituency should favour the Tories, especially after the town of Retford was moved to the adjacent seat of Bassetlaw for the 2010 General Election. But the two votes to watch will be that of the Lib Dems, and of course UKIP.

And, to get a clue as to how a by-election might go, we can look at this month’s County Council contest: Nottinghamshire is one of very few shire counties with a Labour majority administration. The area of the Newark constituency went mostly Tory, although Labour gained seats. There are no Lib Dem councillors in the Newark area, and no UKIP ones in the whole of Nottinghamshire.

This suggests neither party has much of an organisation or base in Newark. The Lib Dem 2010 vote of over 10,000 could well be “soft”: back in 2001 it was less than 6,000. UKIP would of course pour resources into a by-election contest, and they would take votes mainly from the Tories, but Labour has plenty of activists willing to have an away-day from Nottingham to support its campaign, too.

Nigel “Thirsty” Farage and his pals lost their deposit last time. Mercer’s behaviour, and their ability to focus on a by-election, will help them do a lot better, but they won’t win. What they could do, given the recent local Election results, is to take enough of the Tory vote to let Labour in. That is the outside chance that local Tories will be fully aware of, but they won’t want Mercer to hang around.

Mercer says he’ll stand down in 2015. I doubt he’ll see this year out.

[UPDATE 4 June 1300 hours: as if to show that my doubt as to Mercer remaining MP for Newark is right, the Observer has reported that he may face a Police investigation under the 2010 Bribery Act.

That would be most unfortunate, as if this comes to pass, Mercer would have little alternative but to resign his seat. The electorate would not be at all amused if he were investigated, but decided to hang on. This is not the kind of news Young Dave will want to hear, because it would take the timing of the subsequent by-election out of the Tories' hands.

So all we're waiting for now is the MP mentioned by the Obs to make the complaint]

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