Newark byelection - politicians feel the avoid

Were this an election to choose the next World Cup venue, the trains into Newark would be stuffed with bullion. Instead, the voters have had to make do with the rather less golden promises of the dozens of politicians who have arrived daily on the ministerial express. And they look as if they might just have had enough; most look ready to vote for the first party to leave them in peace.

On a slow Monday lunchtime in the town square, the only people out in any numbers are the politicians and the media. It's a surreal meta-exercise in mutual consumption. Ordinary voters are thin on the ground, either enjoying a drink in the Queen's Head or walking extra quickly to minimise the prospects of being talked at. In one corner of the square, the Lib Dem candidate, David Watts, is being tracked by a camera crew who are desperate to film him chatting to someone. It's a thankless task. Watts smiles wanly as yet another person scuttles past. "That's a colleague of mine," he says. "Even he is avoiding me."

Earlier in the day, David Cameron had spoken to a rather more captive audience - "You've got two choices. You can either take it easy for 45 minutes and listen to the PM or you can carry on working" - on his latest PM Direct adventure to get out and meet "the real hard-working men and women of Britain" at the Curry's Know How distribution centre in a business park on the edge of Newark. He bustled in purposefully and took off his jacket to show he was a man of the people, a man of action. It wasn't wholly convincing.

First up, though, was the prospective Tory candidate, Robert Jenrick, a man who could easily pass himself off as the prime minister's nephew. Same hair, same suit, same smooth features, just 20 years younger. And with one or two more houses. Jenrick didn't immediately cover himself in glory by confusing the 20th and 21st centuries, but Cameron nodded enthusiastically regardless. He might even have been listening. "I'm not a career politician," Jenrick assured the crowd. Nor will he be if he carries on like this.

Then it was Cameron's turn. "I'm here because I believe Robert Jenrick will be an excellent constituency MP for the people of Newark." That must have come as news to Tory Central Office who had thought the PM was in Newark for the fourth time in as many weeks, because he was terrified the Conservatives might lose their 16,000 majority to Ukip. Early on he was asked a question about "scroungers staying in bed all day having children". That sounded more like hard work rather than scrounging, but Cameron responded with a "carrot and stick" remedy. Or means of contraception, possibly.

Surrounded by banks of Smart TVs, Cameron then confessed he only had an old black and white (I may have made that up) 28-inch TV at home. There was a collective gasp as everyone felt the pain of his grinding poverty. Suddenly we were really all in it together and the opinion polls leapt to give the Tories a big lead over Ukip.

Not that you would have known it in the centre of Newark. A few Tory balloons aside, all the campaigning action was for Ukip. Into the square walked Roger Helmer, the latter-day Basil Fawlty, Ukip candidate, wearing a pale blue cap. "Don't tell anyone," he said. "It's Swedish."

So what are your plans for the economy? someone asked. "I can't tell you what our economic policy is," he continued. "because we haven't published it yet." And Newark is far too health conscious a town to offer him a fag packet to write it down on.

Powered by article was written by John Crace, for The Guardian on Monday 2nd June 2014 18.01 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010