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Last Updated: Friday, 23 June 2006, 12:33 GMT 13:33 UK
Charge of the right brigade
By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News

What a disappointment.

Nigel Farage
UKIP says it is putting the 'fun' back into by-elections

From some of the media coverage of his selection, I half-expected Bob Neill to be a cigar-puffing, red-nosed caricature of a Tory grandee.

Mr Neill was chosen to fight the Bromley and Chislehurst by-election in defiance of Tory leader David Cameron's efforts to recruit more female, gay and ethnic minority candidates.

In a show of independence the late Eric Forth, whose death last month triggered the contest, would surely have applauded, the local Conservative association spurned Mr Cameron's A-list of approved candidates in favour of their own man.

His selection was portrayed as a victory for the pin-striped Tory old guard.

But here he is, at Tory campaign HQ above a pub in Chislehurst, looking alarmingly modern, in a blue open-necked shirt, talking about inclusiveness, of all things.

Unloved?

He is all for widening the party's appeal, he insists, it's just that the local party wanted a "strong local candidate" and, he says, he fitted the bill.

Bob Neill
Bob Neill: Part of the Tory old guard?

But as a middle aged, middle class barrister and a lapsed mason he is hardly a poster boy for Cameron's new Conservatives.

Does he feel unloved by the party leadership?

"I don't feel there is a sense of disappointment. The A-list wasn't always going to apply to by-elections," says Mr Neill, who is the Tory group leader on the Greater London Authority.

Bromley, a relatively affluent suburb of South East London, is the sort of place where Tory votes are weighed rather than counted.

Mr Forth won a majority of 13,000 at last year's general election and it would take a political earthquake of considerable proportions for the party to lose next Thursday.

Mr Neill's Labour and Lib Dem rivals are pinning their hopes on a raft of candidates stealing Tory votes - ranging from The English Democrats to the National Front and independent candidate John Hemmin-Clark, who is campaigning for the BBC to remain a "family channel".

Fun

UKIP is also throwing everything it has at the seat, in the hope of capitalising on what its candidate, MEP Nigel Farage, describes as the "large number of traditional Conservative voters who are very disillusioned with David Cameron".

The party is flooding the constituency with activists and attempting to scare up a bit of old-fashioned by-election fun.

The first sight that greets us on exiting Bromley South station is Mr Farage waving at voters from a vintage open-topped Alvis decked out in party colours.

Rachel Reeves
Rachel Reeves is focusing on local issues

Mr Farage claims Bromley will be the "acid test" of Mr Cameron's leadership of the Tory party, saying he would have "preferred a Eurosceptic A-lister" in Bromley to "Europhile" Mr Neill.

UKIP activists excitedly talk up the party's chances, even suggesting they could snatch a spectacular victory.

"UKIP, when it is organised and when it has got the money and when it is in the mood has shown in the past it is capable of doing very well," says Mr Farage.

The party has picked a fight with Mr Neill, who is threatening to sue over a UKIP poster claiming he favours "unlimited immigration".

'Two horse race'

Mr Neill, who says he wants a "firm but fair" approach to immigration, insists he cannot let such a personal attack go - although you suspect the legal threat may be more to do with the Tories firing a warning shot across UKIP's bows.

Voters face a clear choice between a proven local guy and 'three jobs Bob' from the East End
Ben Abbotts, Lib Dem candidate

The Lib Dems meanwhile, who are hoping to benefit from a split in the right wing vote, have dubbed Mr Neill "three jobs Bob" - a reference to his seat on the GLA, the board of a local health authority and his legal work.

The party is mounting a typically frantic campaign, with activists bussed in from around the country to bolster their local team.

Deputy leader Vince Cable - a last minute stand-in for Charles Kennedy on the day we visit (Mr Kennedy's father-in-law has been taken ill, apparently) - admits it would be "extraordinary" if the Lib Dems won in Bromley.

But he insists they are fighting to win and dismisses talk of a poor result further damaging Sir Menzies Campbell's leadership.

Lid Dem candidate Ben Abbotts, a political lobbyist and local councillor, also insists it is a "two horse race" between his party and the Tories, and that his is a "a campaign designed and resourced to win".

He speaks earnestly about the fight against crime in the borough.

Local roots

But his main line of attack against Bob Neill is that he would effectively be a "part-time MP".

"Voters face a clear choice between a proven local guy and 'three jobs Bob' from the East End," he says.

Labour candidate Rachel Reeves, a former Bank of England economist who came second here in last year's general election, also plays up her local roots.

She grew up in the area but moved out because she could not afford to buy a house there - the fault of the Tory-controlled council, she claims, rather than the Labour government.

With a week to go before polling day, she has only just given up work to concentrate full time on campaigning but she strongly rejects the suggestion - made by UKIP - that Labour has effectively "thrown in the towel" in Bromley.

She talks gamely about building on the 10,000 votes she received last year and how "anything can happen" in by-elections.

Crime concern

She also shrugs off the apparent lack of activity at Labour HQ on the day we visit - "they were all out campaigning" - and the absence of Cabinet heavyweights, such as Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, from the campaign trail.

"We don't need the leader of the Labour party, we are campaigning on local issues."

Like most of the candidates, Ms Reeves has zeroed in on crime as the key issue.

And chatting to people in Bromley town centre, it is clear anti-social behaviour is a real concern.

Nicola Wootton, 32, a single mother of one, says wants "more police officers" to deal with local youths and more facilities to keep them off the streets.

One woman - a Lib Dem supporter who did not want to be named - says the area is "crying out for a change".

But, she adds, "you could put anyone up as a Conservative in Bromley and they would win".




SEE ALSO
In full: By-election candidates
08 Jun 06 |  UK Politics

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