The rolling news has already started, the political parties have rented their local premises, and the small Nottinghamshire market town of Newark has been inundated with visits from politicians and party political activists ahead of the by-election on Thursday. How are the press covering it, and what can we read between the lines of their narratives?
The Daily Mail’s article on UKIP candidate Roger Helmer didn’t pull any punches, and has already resulted in the threat of a lawsuit. The Mail has depicted Helmer as an extremist, hoping its readers will react by thinking they’d better choose the safe, sane right-wing option and vote Conservative. They have possibly over-egged this one, and whether it backfires will depend on whether they can prove their Helmer-attributed quotations were accurate. If they hit back with hard evidence that he is planning to implement socially regressive policies, it will damage his campaign; otherwise, those already inclined to vote UKIP currently have grounds to dismiss it as a smear.
The Guardian focuses on the influx of politicians to Newark, and takes the angle that the visits are starting to prove counter-productive. It focuses, unsurprisingly, on David Cameron, who made his fourth visit today and spent 45 minutes talking to locals and answering questions. They play up the “posh boy” image of both Cameron and the Conservative candidate Robert Jenrick, with passing reference to the latter’s property portfolio. The final paragraph is dismissive of UKIP, using an anecdote to highlight their lack of fully formed policies. The spin here is to show both right-wing parties as being off-beat and out of touch.
The BBC is hedging its bets, but pays most attention to the Conservative and UKIP candidates. Mentions of Labour, Lib Dems and the Greens are squeezed in towards the end of the article. As the BBC have to show balance, this is as close as they can get to outwardly stating it’s a two-horse race.
The FT focuses on the “everyman” appeal of Nigel Farage, but suggests the UKIP surge may already have peaked. It delivers a few case studies of disillusioned voters intending to vote UKIP, but implies that it is not really love of the party, but disaffection with the other parties and seeing Farage as trustworthy that is determining their vote. A brief interview with Helmer is reported in which he does not come off particularly well.
All of the above present variations on a theme: that Newark is a microcosm. It is not particularly the individual candidates who are being tested, but the political parties to which they belong, with implications for how they may expect to fare in the 2015 General Election. It will also be the first test of UKIP under first-past-the-post since their recent surge in popularity.
What hasn’t often been mentioned is that UKIP have already finished second in a by-election four times, and were this to be a fifth – even a close fifth – I think they will actually be very disappointed. And if today’s Ashcroft poll is anything to go by, the Tory hold may be safer than expected, with all of the current coverage proving to be little more than pre-match hype.