The Battle for Berwick: Tories and Lib Dems neck-and-neck in race for election

Regional Affairs Reporter Rachel Wearmouth takes a look at how things are shaping up in the North East's key marginal seat

David Cameron with Sir Alan Beith (second left) Julie Porksen (second right) and Anne-Marie Trevelyan (right)
David Cameron with Sir Alan Beith (second left) Julie Porksen (second right) and Anne-Marie Trevelyan (right)

With 100 days to go to the General Election, one North East seat is proving irresistible to the coalition partners. Rachel Wearmouth reports on the fight for Berwick.

For anyone a tad jaded with the whole political process, it was a picture that said it all.

When it was announced in December that the A1 in Northumberland was to be upgraded, Prime Minister David Cameron made a rare trip to Northumberland to personally take a stroll by the side of the road. With him in the picture was Anne-Marie Trevelyan, a long-time campaigner for dualling of the A1 who just happens to be the Conservatives’ candidate for Berwick in the election.

With him too was Sir Alan Beith, MP for Berwick for more than four decades and another long-term campaigner for A1 improvements. And with Sir Alan was Julie Porksen, the daughter of a Northumberland farmer who just happens to be the Lib Dems’ candidate for Berwick in the election.

While most people would probably have found that particular photo-op excruciatingly awkward, it appeared not to have put off the candidates - or for that matter, cabinet ministers. By the end of the day Business Secretary Vince Cable had found time in his no doubt busy diary to pop up to Northumberland to have his picture taken by the A1 with Sir Alan, Ms Porksen and a bunch of Lib Dem supporters holding up party placards in vivid orange.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin
 

Two days later, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin was getting in on the act while Ms Trevelyan had time too before the week was out to get her picture taken posing behind a banner that said: “A1 dualling confirmed! Thank you George!”

But then it appears that the delights of north Northumberland are not lost on the Cabinet as a whole, with more than a third of them - eight out of 22 - having been in the Berwick constituency in the last two years. Along with Messrs Cameron, Cable and McLoughlin, Lib Dems Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander have been up, as have Conservatives George Osborne, Liz Truss and Theresa Villiers.

Throw in Michael Gove and Francis Maude, who attend Cabinet but are not strictly Cabinet Ministers, and you’re into double figures - never has Berwick been so popular. Anyone would think there is an election on.

By common agreement, that election, on a national scale, is too close to call. Yet in the North East, few seats are seen as marginal. Stockton South and Redcar are high on Labour’s target list and polls suggest Redcar at least will fall to Ed Miliband.

But Berwick is of interest to so many cabinet ministers not just because it is a fight between the two Coalition partners, but also because it is very much still up for grabs.

Sir Alan Beith with Julie Porksen
Sir Alan Beith with Julie Porksen
 

Sir Alan has been Berwick’s MP for 42 years, capturing what was then a safe Tory constituency in 1973 when Conservative Antony Lambton was forced to resign after becoming embroiled in a sex scandal. The then university lecturer won the seat by just 57 votes and had to face the electorate three times in the next year, but over time he gained a reputation as a hard working, popular constituency MP and has enjoyed the kind of devotion some parliamentarians can but dream of.

These are facts which no doubt irked Northumberland Conservatives who view the relatively affluent constituency as their natural habitat.

And if history is anything to go by they may be right to stake their claim.

The seat was held by the Conservatives for some 28 years before Sir Alan’s tenure, but, prior to this modern era, voters wavered from the old Liberal party to Conservative with no apparent loyalty, and sometimes voted completely against the grain.

That political history is entirely apt for a border town that passed between English and Scottish hands 13 times (and was, apocryphally, at war with Russia for centuries).

Sir Alan’s retirement - at a time when the Lib Dems nationally are suffering in the polls from being part of the Coalition - has thrown the seat wide open.

Ms Trevelyan has been playing the long game, this being the second time the charted accountant is standing to represent Berwick. She set up the Dual The A1 campaign in 2007 and took a huge bite out of Sir Alan’s support in 2010, with the Lib Dem majority dropping from 8,632 to 2,690 - an 8.3% swing to the Conservatives.

Ms Porksen has also been active, with barely a week going by without her being quoted in the press, putting transport and education central to her campaign.

Tory parliamentary candidate for Berwick, Anne-Marie Trevelyan
Tory parliamentary candidate for Berwick, Anne-Marie Trevelyan
 

Both candidates have strong support from high command. Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, Chancellor George Osborne and Chief Whip Michael Gove are just some of the high-profile names to grace Berwick with their presence in recent months.

And money has been flowing into the constituency too. The Electoral Commission lists a number of donations to both parties, though a single £2,250 donation from Sir Alan to the Berwick Lib Dems in 2014 looks meagre in comparison to the £40,000 received by Mrs Trevelyan or her constituency party last year. (Prominent donors include Sir John Hall, OGN boss Alexander Temerko and the “Trevelyan Campaign Fund”). Since then the Lib Dems have benefited from a £20,000 donation from Lord Oakeshott, though Ms Porksen faced questions over taking money from someone who has so openly backed the Lib Dems going into an alliance with Labour and the Green Party.

As it stands, the Tories have the edge, but not by much. A Lord Ashcroft poll puts Ms Trevelyan in first place with 33% of the vote. The Lib Dems, however, are not far behind, on 30%. But they each have more to worry about than the other’s progress.

Berwick does not escape the Ukip factor as Nigel Coghill-Marshall pulled a respectable 17% in the same poll. Were the election tomorrow, that would mean Nigel Farage’s party would record an unprecedented 14% bump. This is something that will give Ms Trevelyan a serious headache over the coming months.

Labour, currently the party strongly opposing George Osborne’s programme of spending cuts (something which could win support in places like Amble and Seahouses), can also expect to do better than in 2010. Their candidate, county councillor Scott Dickinson, sits in fourth place with 16%, after speaking out on HMP Northumberland, a privately-run jail which has been hit by a number of crises in recent months.

The poll would produce much hand-wringing in the Lib Dem camp as Rothbury-born mum-of-two Ms Porksen cannot afford to lose support to Labour.

Berwick’s Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate Julie Pörksen
Berwick’s Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate Julie Pörksen
 

But polls rarely tell the full story, and what might ring true in a marginal in Norfolk could strike a duff note in a constituency with Edinburgh as its closest capital city.

Christine Grahame, the half-Scottish/half-English MSP, toyed with the idea of running in Berwick for the SNP, until her party ruled out the cross-border proposition. This alone goes to show just how unpredictable Berwick is.

With the election that close, every headline matters. Never has this been clearer than the parties started scrambling over who should take credit for a £290m commitment to dual the A1 - even though, when the dust settled on that initial announcement, it became clear that it was not the full dualling of the road everyone had been campaigning for.

The A1 will only be dualled as far as Ellingham and no-one would be surprised to hear parties of all hues make a host of promises over what they will do with the rest of the road if they win power. (Before the 2010 election, the parties fell over each other in trying to out-promise each other on what they would do with the road).

Voters should perhaps take their words with a healthy dose of skepticism because there can be no doubt that Berwick, for Tories and Lib Dems at least, is in their top 10 target seats.

Voters unhappy with the piles of leaflets on their welcome mats can expect more - much more - of the same between now and May.

And the chances are they can also expect to see quite a few more Cabinet Ministers, too.

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