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Loonies and Tories threaten Lib Dem

Nic Barnard joins ex-headteacher and Lib Dem education spokesman Phil Willis as he tries to hang on to a former Conservative party stronghold.

FIRST the bad news: on Phil Willis's home turf, a Harrogate Advertiser poll puts the Liberal Democrats a poor third. Worse, they're behind the Monster Raving Loony Party and the Real Radical Progressive Rock Party.

The good news is the poll was taken for Harrogate Grammar School's mock election. Outside the school gates, on the streets and doorsteps of the North Yorkshire town, the Lib Dem education spokesman actually appears quite popular.

"Anything less than a 10,000 majority would be a disappointment," Willis confides over a bite in the Pine Marten pub where even a trip to the loo is interrupted by a chat to prospective voters.

Five years ago you wouldn't have believed it. Harrogate was and always had been a Tory stronghold. That changed in 1997 when the Tories put up Norman Lamont. Willis won by 6,236 and said goodbye to 14 years as head of John Smeaton school in Leeds.

This time, he believes, they'll be voting for him, not against the Tories. Last time, says Mr Willis: "Lamont only needed to sneeze and he was on television." But now it's Tory Andrew Jones's turn to suffer a better-known opponent. Lib Dem leaflets do not even deign to name him: he is simply "the Conservative from London" (he was born in Ilkley).

Election campaigning is pure slog. In drizzle, The TES follows Mr Willis from nursing home to door-knocking in a well-heeled street near the town centre before a trip to a school with a sympathetic head.

Later there's a contituency surgery, a drive to Leeds for two regional TV slots and a speech to local election candidates. He says he won't drink alcohol until polls close.

"It's soul-destroying, canvassing during the day," he says, stuffing a leaflet through another door. But even "sorry to miss you" leaflets raise the profile.

A decade of local election campaigns has smoothed the patter. Mr Willis spots a lost cause a mile off, but can turn round waverers.

It's in the school yard, surrounded by infants, that he really lights up. He admits he misses teaching. He wouldn't go back, but he's disappointed by parliament.

"So much of what happens in the Commons is irrelevant. Performance management, the threshold, the literacy and numeracy strategy - not once were they debated in the house."

Back on the street, and he's incapable of passing people without talking to them. After a while, you notice a couple of things.

Firstly, education is a major issue. It counts for at least half the topics raised by voters - from mums worried about getting their choice of school to the parent of an autistic boy let down by the local authority.

The second thing is that in this Tory target seat, already visited by Portillo and Widdecombe, nobody is interested in the Tory trump cards. Nobody mentions tax. Nobody mentions immigration.

Well, hardly anyone. One man says he's backing the Tories "to get the foreigners out". George, Willis's driver and former mayor of Harrogate, chips in helpfully: "Phil's a foreigner. He's from Burnley."

The Lib Dem from Lancashire. They keep that quiet in Yorkshire.

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