It is 8.30am and Jacqui Smith MP, who quit as home secretary after newspaper revelations about her expenses, is handing out election leaflets to voters while standing beside a dead hedgehog, reports Jonathan Guthrie. Hit by a car, the animal crawled on to the pavement to expire outside St Luke’s Church of England First School in Redditch, Worcestershire.
Ms Smith’s political career is barely healthier than that hedgehog. She claimed £116,000 on her Redditch home, including 88p for a bath plug now emblematic of casual freeloading by politicians from all three main parties. Voter disillusionment has left many undecided as polling stations open their doors.
Roger Hewitt, a quality control officer chatting in the town’s market, expresses the disgust that many feel. “Jacqui Smith should be shot,” he says, “She’s a thief, but that’s a prerequisite to be a politician.” Another man, dropping his daughter off at St Luke’s, grudgingly endorses Ms Smith: “She’s the best of a bad lot.” The Tories need a swing of just 2.5 per cent to claim Redditch, an industrial town near Birmingham. It is one of a series of Midlands seats that the Conservatives have a good chance of taking from Labour.
Ms Smith, for her part, is not looking for victory so much as absolution. “I believe that you should stand for election when you fear you’ll lose, as much as when you expect to win,” says Ms Smith, who is bright, breezy and brittle.
Her line on expenses has the fluency that comes with repetition. She made the claims on her designated second home in Redditch “following rules based on where you spent the most nights – and I spent the most nights in London”. She is “very sorry about the films” – pornographic movies watched by her husband and campaign manager Richard Timney that she unwittingly claimed on expenses.
The penitent air of the Labour camp contrasts with the do-or-die determination of local Tories to claim Redditch after defeats in 1997, 2001 and 2005. A squad of canvassers descends on a quiet private housing estate with the focused energy of a special forces unit. “Let’s go guys!” urges candidate Karen Lumley, a commando in a trouser suit.
She races from house to house, beaming forcefully. Ms Lumley, 46, a small-business owner with bobbed, bleached hair, disdains to use Ms Smith’s expenses for electoral advantage. The prime minister’s unpopularity is a better weapon. “Do you really want five more years of Gordon Brown?” she asks the numerous voters who remain undecided. “I’ll vote for you,” one householder announces, peering nervously from a first-floor window as if besieged.
Nicholas Lane, a first-time Liberal Democrat candidate, is paying his dues by running for this apparently unwinnable seat. Thanks to Nick Clegg’s impact in the televised debates Mr Lane, a 26-year-old academic researcher, hopes to raise sharply his party’s 14 per cent share of the vote. “If it was not for the polls surge we would not stand a chance here,” he says.
Mr Lane has time to hone his act. A likely outcome of the election is that Britons will see a lot more of the new breed of Lib Dems long after the expenses row – including Ms Smith’s bath plug – is forgotten.