If Kelly Tolhurst has her way, Rochester and Strood will be where the wheels come off the UKIP bandwagon.
The personable small-business owner, 36, has been given a second crack at defeating UKIP’s Mark Reckless, after doing better than expected in last November’s by-election.
Then, Mr Reckless became UKIP’s second MP, following Douglas Carswell in Clacton, after defecting from the Tories last September at the start of their party conference.
But his majority was cut from 9,953 to 2,920. With turnout in the General Election expected to be markedly higher, and without the media circus that accompanies a by-election, he openly admits that defeat is a possibility.
“I think it’s going to be tight,” he told the Standard. “I have got a good fighting chance. I might win. I might lose. It’s an uncharted situation.”
Six months of campaigning have meant that both candidates are recognised on the street. At Dot Cafe on Rochester High Street, owner Sandy Chattendon jokes with Ms Tolhurst that her non-stop canvassing means she barely finds time to stop for a coffee.
She likes the fact Ms Tolhurst runs her own local business, a marine surveying firm, and says she plans to vote Tory. “Last General Election, I think I voted Tory,” Ms Chattendon said. “I will probably stick. If Labour force me to pay the living wage of £8 an hour, I would be straight out of business.”
Ms Tolhurst appears reluctant to see herself on the frontline of the battle to stop UKIP, preferring to talk about benefits of a recovering economy under the Tories, and who deserves the keys to 10 Downing Street.
But such is the strategic importance of Rochester and Stood that it was the location for Samantha Cameron’s first solo campaign visit, with Ms Tolhurst at a special needs school. Tory chief whip Michael Gove has been to the constituency, and the Prime Minister is also expected.
“It’s about standing up for local people,” Ms Tolhurst said, declining to indulge in a verbal sparring match with UKIP. “For me, it’s very much about being able to represent the area and the people I know and I’m part of. I would never try and be a candidate anywhere else. I only want to represent Rochester and Strood.
“People on the doorstep are talking to me about the economy. They are talking about benefits. They are talking about housing. They are talking about immigration. People are thinking about who is going to run the country in May.”
She was a community campaigner who was encouraged to become a councillor in 2011. She was fast-tracked as a parliamentary candidate following Mr Reckless’s defection.
She claims Mr Reckless’s defection bosted membership of the local Tory association. “Effectively we were left without representation for six weeks,” she said. “For the local people, it was very, very difficult.”
Rochester and Strood have increasingly become London commuter towns, boosted by the arrival of the Olympic Javelin trains on the High Speed 1 route that link the north Kent and Medway area to St Pancras. Earnings are around the national average while unemployment is low.
Ms Tolhurst says its dockyard history has meant immigration had been a fact of life for centuries, and it was no UKIP heartland. “People have always come to Medway for work,” she said. “We have always had a transient community.”
She said UKIP decided not to stand a candidate against Mr Reckless in 2010 as it knew of his Eurosceptic views. His near-10,000 majority was over Labour, which came second. Its by-election candidate Naushabah Khan, who works in public affairs in London and whose hobbies include kick-boxing, is standing again.
Further down the High Street, the front window of Mr Reckless’s office is displaying UKIP merchandise. He said sales of UKIP-branded high-visibility vests, “Genuine Belgian Damp Rag Herman Van Rompuy” tea towels (£2) and rosettes (£1) were boosting party coffers, but declined to model the purple UKIP baseball cap for the Standard’s photographer.
On the streets, Jennifer Curno said she would continue to vote for Mr Reckless. “Where he goes, we go,” she said. “He is from Rochester and he knows how people feel.”
An undertaker also pledged his vote, recognising the seat was on a knife-edge. “It’s close, Mark,” said the man.
Canvassing in Strood, Danielle Wynne, 24, opens the door to Mr Reckless and instantly recognises him – he helped get her and husband Michael re-housed and she is full of gratitude.
“I think my vote is with you,” she said, his UKIP status neither counting for or against him. “After everything you have done to help me in the past, I have got no issue with you at all.”
Mr Reckless says UKIP’s ambitions are merely to win “at least a handful” of seats, but won’t be pinned down on a number. He predicts a “reasonably clean fight” with his old party – after a court action ended in his favour.
Medway Conservatives had attempted to recoup “several thousands of pounds” it spent promoting Mr Reckless. The claim was thrown out of court, and it was ordered to pay his £1,850 legal fees. “It was like leaving your job and having to reimburse your employer for unused business cards,” Mr Reckless said.
He claimed he was garnering most support from the 45 to 65 age group, in particular disillusioned Labour voters. “We are challenging the cosy consensus of Establishment parties,” he said. “Part of how they keep others out is to demonise those who challenge them. UKIP is a decent party with decent mainstream people fighting for Britain. I’m happy to add my weight to that fight.”
* An edited version of this article appeared in the Evening Standard yesterday: Rochester