Parties set to battle over Newark by-election contest

Newark
Image caption Candidates are lining up for the Newark by-election

The Nottinghamshire market town of Newark is no stranger to hand-to-hand political battles.

King John died in its walled castle. Was it a political killing? In the Civil War, the Royalists came a cropper at the hands of the parliamentarians.

Now the town is about to face another siege: this time from teams of party canvassers, election campaigners and political journalists.

And then there's the list of candidates wanting to become the next MP for Newark.

Image caption Patrick Mercer's resignation sparked the by-election in Newark

The by-election was caused by the sudden resignation of the constituency's former Conservative MP Patrick Mercer, over a cash-for-parliamentary-questions scandal.

The by-election is on 5 June, but the Conservatives have hit the ground running.

The local party selected a new candidate last November, the moment Patrick Mercer resigned the Tory whip. He remained in the Commons as an independent MP.

The party's pinning its hopes on Robert Jenrick, until recently a director with Christie auctioneers. But could Newark's 16,000 Conservative majority end up going, going, gone?

Image copyright The Conservative Party
Image caption Robert Jenrick, seen here with Tory MP Kenneth Clark, has been selected as the Conservative party candidate in the Newark by-election

The national attention of a parliamentary by-election and the scrutiny of the main candidates involved can be a mixed blessing.

"There will be national interest," Mr Jenrick told me.

"What most people in the town want is a long-term constituency MP, who'll be a real champion for the area.

"Also, someone who's going to live here with the family, make a life here and follow in the tradition of other Nottinghamshire MPs, like Patrick and Ken Clarke in Rushcliffe."

He highlights local issues such as improving Newark's schools and the town's hospital.

Image caption Former Tory Roger Helmer will be standing for UKIP

But in most by-elections, the outcome is viewed as a verdict on the performance of the party in government.

For the Conservatives, there's also the UKIP factor. Nigel Farage may have declined standing in this election but UKIP's candidate Roger Helmer will cause some nerves.

He's an East Midlands MEP and a former Conservative, who defected two years ago to UKIP.

He had rowed with the Tory leadership over his successor as MEP.

The veteran MEP has a track record for being outspoken, and past remarks have been seized on by critics as being homophobic and soft on date rape. I asked him if he regretting those remarks.

"I'm regretting the storm of media attention on those issues. I want to concentrate on issues to do with this by-election and what it means for Newark.

"There's also the fact of having the first UKIP MP in Westminster saying the things that so many people in Britain and Newark want to hear," he added.

Image caption Labour candidate Michael Payne said UKIP were not the answer for Newark

Labour's candidate Michael Payne hopes to shred that Conservative majority, but is UKIP a help or hindrance?

"UKIP aren't the answer here in Newark," he said.

"UKIP wants to privatise our NHS. They want to water down drink-driving laws. What I'm concentrating on is talking to people who want a real alternative.

"And the only way they can send that message to David Cameron and the Liberal Democrats who support him, is to vote Labour in the by-election."

The Liberal Democrats polled 20% in the last general election. Their candidate is David Watts, a Nottingham-based lawyer and a senior councillor in Broxtowe, where the Nottingham suburban council is a Labour/Lib-Dem coalition.

Image caption Liberal Democrat candidate David Watts is a lawyer and senior councillor

"I recognise we are no longer the party of protest because we are a party of government, " said Mr Watts.

"We need to show the real benefits of voting Liberal Democrat and the difference we are making to this country."

And no by-election is complete without the novelty value of a fringe independent. Buspass Elvis - aka Dave Bishop - is no stranger to by-elections.

He hopes to better the 67 votes he received in a council by-election in Nottingham last March.

The result made national headlines: Buspass Elvis had beaten the Liberal Democrats into last place. Even he admits, that's an unlikely prospect in Newark.

Image copyright Shawn Ryan
Image caption David Laurence Bishop aka Lord Biro has thrown his hat into the ring