Eurosceptics threaten main parties in key British vote

The young couple cry as they tell the UK Independence Party candidate that they face losing heir home. Diane James replies comfortingly: "Well the first thing I can do is look after the cat."

The eurosceptic party is battling for every vote in the nondescript southern English railway town of Eastleigh, the scene of one of Britain's tightest by-elections for years.

Thursday's vote pits the two parties in Britain's governing coalition, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, at each others' throats in a contest neither can afford to lose in economically straitened times.

But the dark horse is UKIP, which is increasingly confident not only of beating the main opposition Labour party into third place but of actually winning its first seat in parliament.

"I believe we can win. If Eastleigh wants to make history, that's within their grasp," James told AFP.

The election was triggered by the resignation of former Lib Dem minister Chris Huhne after he pleaded guilty to trying to avoid a speeding fine. His wife is on trial this week for her alleged involvement.

Eastleigh is perhaps best known for being the home town of the late comedian Benny Hill, but the by-election is no laughing matter for Britain's political parties.

Big names including Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and Lib Dem Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg have flocked here to back their candidates.

A poll of 1,000 voters published by the local Daily Echo newspaper this week put the Lib Dems and Conservatives on 22 percent each, with UKIP on 18 percent and Labour on 12 percent, while 22 percent said they would not vote.

Confidence is high in the Lib Dems' buzzing Eastleigh HQ -- despite the shadow of Huhne's disgrace.

The party has also been dogged by a scandal involving the alleged failure of Clegg to deal with claims that a former senior Lib Dem groped female party workers.

But candidate Mike Thornton, a local business manager and councillor, is sanguine.

"It's between us and the Conservatives," he said as he canvassed at a railway yard.

Victory for the Lib Dems would ease worries that their unpopular coalition with the Conservatives could see them wiped out in 2015's general election.

A Conservative win on the other hand will boost the party's hopes of an outright majority in two years' time.

But they have not held Eastleigh since 1994 when Tory MP Stephen Milligan died from auto-erotic asphyxiation -- the last time Eastleigh was touched by political scandal.

The Conservative campaign started shakily after their candidate, mother-of-four Maria Hutchings, made controversial remarks about state schools and about Cameron's pro-gay marriage stance.

After days of keeping a low profile she emerged this week to say that Cameron had shown "strong leadership" with his recent vow to hold a referendum on Britain's EU membership.

"It was a big game changer for me here," she said as she knocked on doors in a leafy area of the constituency.

Labour candidate John O'Farrell, a comedian, meanwhile faced controversy after it emerged that he had once written of his "disappointment" that "Iron Lady" Margaret Thatcher had not died in an IRA bombing in 1984.

Both the Lib Dem and Conservative candidates insist they are not worried by UKIP -- the party that Cameron once said was full of "loonies and closet racists".

Yet statements from both candidates betrayed their concerns.

Hutchings said voting for the eurosceptic UKIP could let the Lib Dems "in through the back door" while her Lib Dem rival issued an almost identical warning about inadvertently handing victory to the Tories.

At UKIP's ramshackle Eastleigh office, volunteers sip from mugs emblazoned with the words "The EU is NOT my cup of tea" on one side and a picture of their leader Nigel Farage on the other.

James said she was a Conservative until 2010 but left because they were ignoring the concerns of most Britons.

"I think the most common refrain is that someone is finally talking about the immigration problem," she said, adding that voters were also raising the "whole mess that Europe appears to be in at the moment."

Among those campaigning for UKIP in Eastleigh this week were controversial former Conservative lawmaker Neil Hamilton and his wife Christine.

Neil Hamilton resigned in 1994 following allegations that he received cash from Egyptian tycoon Mohamed Al-Fayed in return for asking questions in parliament.

"UKIP was always treated as a fringe party but now people are seriously considering voting for it," Hamilton said.

But the young couple who came into the UKIP office with their baby to complain about losing their home -- and their cat -- were less interested in Europe than in what politicians could do for a working family like themselves.

"I don't understand what any of them say. It's all the same promises," said the woman, who gave her name only as Heidi.