Carnival of dull: One day in Eastleigh
Terrible things are happening to the good people of Eastleigh. The entirety of the Westminster village has decamped here. Local shoppers have to navigate a treacherous maze of excitable young party activists, stuffing campaign bumf into their hands and forcing their children to carry balloons with party logos. Throw something heavy and you've a good chance of hospitalising a Cabinet secretary.
It makes for a messy, baffling scene, like Glastonbury for hideous politics people. Spotty teenagers hand out leaflets for the Tories inbetween cigarettes, then mock an eccentric Ukip man with a loudhailer who walks around the town centre with his dog. Everyone seems to be having a grand old time, except for the people of Eastleigh, who look irritable and bored and desperate for the whole thing to stop.
The town itself is so characterless it is almost notable. It is entirely without qualities. Most places have at least one spot which make them look passable, but Eastleigh is universally dull. It is not even really ugly. It is nondescript; shattered by the war and then by the decline of the railway industry. As one BBC Radio Solent report said: "Say what you want about Eastleigh but it's got cracking access to motorways."
David Cameron has come down for one of his interminable Cameron Direct events in an industrial park east of the railway station. The Tories only allow their candidate out if she's accompanied by an adult. Maria Hutchings was a difficult figure well before Chris Huhne sparked the by-election here with a guilty plea in Southwark crown court. She was on record with right-of-Genghis–Khan quotes on Europe and abortion. She'd already boosted Huhne's majority from 568 to 3,864 when she ran against him in 2010. And she'd called her party leader a "sell-out" for making a "pact with the devil" when he formed the coalition.
The Conservatives had plenty of time to find someone else. From the point Huhne first gave his name and address in court, the party must have known this campaign was a strong possibility. But for reasons only they can understand, she is the official candidate. When Cameron arrives in the constituency she is just starting to move on from insisting one of her children should go to private school because he's very special.
The prime minister looks tired and exasperated as she introduces him to the assembled factory workers. She issues the usual collection of mixed metaphors and truisms and ends with a not-so-subtle promise to support the prime minister if she makes it to Westminster. All the signs are that she got the hairdryer treatment backstage. The PM is in a foul mood. His best effort to praise her comes in the insistence she is a "plain speaker".
That's all we hear from her. The Tory candidate has a sterile zone around her a mile long. Her press people are erecting barricades. She's not even allowed on radio debates anymore. The next hour is taken up with the prime minister answering questions from a thoroughly eloquent and well-read Eastleigh workforce. The candidate is reduced to an audience member. She is a strange-looking thing. There is far too much activity in her face. It never maintains an expression for longer than a second or two. She may well be a signed-up member of the backbench awkward squad before even arriving in Westminster, but she gazes at Cameron with starry-eyed longing, like she wants to scarper with his career. Then suddenly she turns reproachful, as if she didn't like the thought she just had, or is reacting to an imaginary barb. Then she remembers something, smiles beatifically, and gazes up at the prime minister again.
After the Cameron Direct event, I walk the five minutes to the Ukip offices. Candidate Diane James is surrounded by activity. She cuts an attractive figure: confident, measured and, unlike most Ukip people, seemingly capable of limited empathy. We discuss the curse of the Eastleigh seat for a moment, citing the death in 1994 of then-Tory MP Stephen Milligan, who was found dead surrounded by stockings, suspenders, an electric flex and an orange. James refers to illegal activity, so my companion and I inform her that autoerotic asphyxiation is legal, if not necessarily sensible. She reddens. "Ah yes, quite right," she says. "I must say I'm never entirely sure what it involves." She laughs a bit too hard, then grabs for her aide and introduces us.
As we sit down, my companion – from the Financial Times – makes a generous joke about politics.co.uk having more readers. "Yes, but they're not A1s," James' aide snaps, her face humourless.
I ask James why her party insists on portraying Romanians and Bulgarians as particularly susceptible to crime. "Just two weeks ago the Times ran a series of articles from officials from major German cities who correlated that an influx of people from Romania and Bulgaria had led to a notable increase in crime," she says.
"What do you think it is about Romanians and Bulgarians that makes them more likely to be criminals?" I ask.
"I don't know. I can't possibly comment. I'm not a psychologist. I'm not someone who studies individual cultures in absolute depth so that's not a question I think I can answer." She pauses for a moment before emerging with another Times anecdote. "The Sunday Times ran an absolutely superb one-page article which portrayed Bulgaria as a fantastic place to go last week," she says. "I read it thinking: 'Crikey, if I was a young person and I wanted to go to Ibiza for my summer holidays, I'd change my destination of choice'."
Her aide butts in again. "Good skiing in Bulgaria," she observes, pointedly.
Outside, the loudspeaker man and his dog have started making a lot of noise. James waves to her aide. She shuts them up and ushers them inside.
"I want to hear you two and I want you to be able to hear me," James says sternly. "We'll put him back out there as soon as the interview is finished."
Suddenly, a well-groomed, suited Asian man in his early 30s walks into the office and grandly proclaims: "I am here to offer my services." James takes this odd moment without blinking, either because she is hard to impress or because it is happening all the time.
"You're not local, are you?" my companion observes.
"No, I'm not," she replies, slightly exasperated. "I've got plenty of connections. Do you want me to run through them? I've done it several times now so I'm more than happy to do so again."
"I'll take your word for it. Where are you from?"
"My home's in Surrey. I'm currently living down here."
She is so Surrey. It is hard to overstate just how Surrey she is. She has the brittle middle-class tone they cultivate down there and a stern, unaffected manner which you can imagine her bringing to joyless dinner parties and local party association meetings.
Some commentators think the party's strong performance in Eastleigh is a sign Farage should have run, but they shouldn't underestimate how much of it is down to James. She's an impressive candidate. You can see how she would be reassuring to Conservative voters unsure whether Ukip is perhaps a bit much. In any sane world, she would be campaigning as the Tory party candidate. But this is not a sane world. It is Westminster-upon-Eastleigh.
Down the road, the Labour headquarters is a hive of activity. We have not seen any Labour people on the street, which presumably explains why they all appear to be here. Young people are darting up and down stairs. Messages are being pinned on a notice board. In the midst of it all is John O'Farrell, the satirist and Labour candidate.
He has the look of a man who is fighting a losing campaign and being forced to remain upbeat about it. His comments are bare and uninteresting. This is someone who is used to being interesting – to relying on being interesting for his career. Now those qualities are weaknesses.
"I'm really enjoying it," he says, unconvincingly. "It's really hard work. It's just a foretaste of the Commons. I'm trying to say politics is a positive thing. MPs are mostly honest. They do their best for their constituency."
The man's had the charisma sucked out of him. I ask him what he would consider success – doubling the (negligible) Labour vote? Tripling it?
"I'm not thinking like that," he says. "I think we can win it. No-one knows what could happen. It's completely wide open."
O'Farrell, like everyone else in Eastleigh, enjoys talking up the Ukip factor. "Ukip are taking a lot of voters," he says. "Some people want to make an anti-politics vote. In Scotland and Wales they might vote nats [nationalist]. Some vote Respect. Here it goes to Ukip. They're not agreeing with everything the Ukip candidate stands for. They're saying: 'plague on all your houses, I'm voting for the best known protest party'."
O'Farrell's aide suggests we wrap up and the candidate looks relieved. When he shakes my hand he doesn't make eye contact. The campaign is deadening him. His Twitter account remains funny and unusual for a candidate, but in person you can smell his desperate need for it all to be over.
Down by the market, the people of Eastleigh are still undertaking the gauntlet of political leaflets standing in the way of their groceries. This is Huhne's real betrayal: inflicting a carnival of dull on this small Hampshire town.
Mike Thornton, the parish and borough councillor selected as Lib Dem candidate, is standing by the party's stand, watching young campaigners offer children Lib Dem balloons. There is a sort of nervous determination in him. He looks like Nick Hewer from the Apprentice and stands a little too close to people when he speaks to them. He's well trained – refusing to say anything which could possibly be of any interest to anyone and using bridging sentences to move from questions he doesn't like to answers he wants to give.
"It astonishes me that one week before the end of the campaign, my opponent is unwilling to give her views to people," he says. "Even John O'Farrell had to come down from London for the debates."
I ask if Huhne's case has come up on the doorstep much. "Until people hear my views they're worried about it," he says. "When they hear what I'm saying – that Chris committed a crime and should apologise – they realise I'm agreeing with them. Then they stop being so concerned about it. They need to realise I agree with them."
I ask if he feels the pressure – not just of winning a campaign himself but proving the Lib Dems aren't necessarily facing extinction in 2015. "What I'm concentrating on is getting into parliament next Thursday so I can help people, get income tax down, get more money for schools."
You get the picture. Trying to get anything of interest out of him is like trying to get the toothpaste back in the tube.
"It's a small town," he observers, looking around at the misery of a frantic election campaign. "Large constituency. Small town. They'll be glad to make their views clear and get back to normal life."
That much, at least, is true.