THIS election in Winchester is widely seen as the closest since 1997.

Then the Liberal Democrats famously snatched what had seemed a safe Conservative seat by the famous two votes.

The difference is that until the closing stages of the campaign few people thought the Lib Dem candidate Mark Oaten would win. This time the poll is being seen as too close to call. Some of the bookies have Paula Ferguson, the Lib Dem candidate, as the favourite.

From 1950 to 1997 the seat was solidly Conservative. In 1945 it had elected a Labour MP but largely because the constituency then included Eastleigh with its railway works and industry.

The Lib Dems are committing major resources to the campaign with Winchester high on their hit list. Back in the late 1990s and noughties Winchester was part of the ‘Golden Triangle’, the flagship seats with Romsey and Eastleigh, an orange bloc amid a mainly blue sea of Tory seats. Now the three seats are all Tory-held.

Ms Ferguson is making play of the fact that she is not a career politician, only being elected to the city council in May.

Her main motivation is to stop Brexit and the colossal damage she says it will cause to the UK economy. With 59 per cent voting to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum she hopes to capture remain-inclined Tories and Labour voters. Winchester is one of the staunchest remain seats in southern England outside of London.

The election issues of education, the NHS and climate change have been squeezed aside.

Her cause has been boosted by the standing down of the Greens to give the Remain Alliance a stronger chance of victory. The Lib Dems have reciprocated by not standing on the Isle of Wight

Mr Brine will point to the fact that he voted remain in 2016 and then risked his political career to vote against the Boris Johnson deal earlier this year, losing the party whip. He will hope that pro-EU Tories will factor that in to their voting intentions.

The $64,000 question is will enough Tories defect to the Lib Dems to endanger Mr Brine’s 2017 majority of 9,999? Only the second largest swing in post-war Winchester history, apart from Mark Oaten’s huge 21,000-majority in the 1997 re-election, would achieve it.

Will the city’s 7,000 students forgive the Lib Dems for supporting the huge hike in tuition fees when they were part of the coalition government after 2010?

The Lib Dem share of the vote has been volatile in recent elections; from 50 per cent, the last time that Mark Oaten won, down to 24 per cent in 2015 and then bouncing back to 34 per cent in 2017.

Many observers have looked at the success of the Lib Dems in wresting control of the city council in May as a sign that the tide is changing. They have 27 seats on the city council, the Tories 17, with one independent. The Lib Dems hold 12 of the 14 seats within the city itself. But much of the constituency is rural and strongly Conservative-voting.

The Lib Dems are optimistic about winning yet Conservative workers have told the Chronicle that they have been heartened by how firm Conservative support has been. As MP for nearly ten years Mr Brine has the advantage of being a well-established name.

One thing is sure; this election is set for a very high turnout. In 2017 it 78.8 per cent the fourth highest in the UK.

For Labour, George Baker will look to break through the 10 per cent mark around which it has been hovering since 2005. He is a local businessman with congenital muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair.

Teresa Skelton is standing to highlight alleged poor practice in law enforcement.

Who is standing?

ONLY four candidates are contesting the Winchester and Chandler’s Ford constituency on December 12.

They are:

  • George Baker, Labour;
  • Steve Brine, Conservative, the former health minister;
  • Paula Ferguson, Liberal Democrat;
  • Teresa Skelton, Justice and Anti-Corruption Party.

In 2017 Steve Brine retained the seat with a comfortable majority of 9,999 votes. The Greens have stood down to allow the Lib Dems a clear run under the remain Alliance banner.

The result from 2017:

  • Steve Brine, Conservative, 29,729 votes, 52 per cent of the vote, down 3 per cent on 2015;
  • Jackie Porter, Lib Dem, 19,730 votes, 34.5 per cent, 10.1 per cent up;
  • Mark Chaloner, Labour, 6,007 votes, 10.5 per cent, 2.2 per cent up;
  • Andrew Wainwright, Green, 846 votes, 1.5 per cent, 3.3 down;
  • Martin Lyon, UKIP, 695 votes, 1.2 per cent, 6.2 down;
  • Teresa Skelton, Justice & Anti-Corruption Party, 149 votes, 0.3 per cent.

One of the latest opinion polls, from YouGov’s MRP poll, commissioned by The Times has the parties as follows: Conservative 47 per cent; Liberal Democrat 44 per cent; Labour 7 per cent; Independent 2 per cent.

Ms Ferguson, said: “This poll shows that every single vote is going to count here in the election. How people vote on December 12 won’t only decide who the next MP will be, it could also affect what happens in the country as a whole, as Winchester & Chandler’s Ford is being seen as key marginal seat.

The votes will be counted, as they have since 2001, at the River Park Leisure Centre in Winchester, with the result expected to be announced towards breakfast time on Friday morning.

The hall is also being used to count the votes in the Meon Valley where Conservative candidate Flick Drummond is defending a huge majority achieved by her predecessor George Hollingbery. At the last two elections in 2015 and 2017 he secured majorities of 23,913 and 25,692 respectively.