Bernard Ingham: The economy, not a by-election, will decide fate of the coalition

ALL eyes are on the Pennines this week. Two questions are being asked: what will happen in the cross-border by-election in Oldham East and Saddleworth; and, whatever the outcome, will it matter?

The honest answers on the eve of the poll are that almost anything is possible but that, however it turns out, it won't add up to a row of beans in the long run.

By-elections seldom do count for much unless a Government is on its last legs and its majority is fast disappearing. They usually have no more significance than the Opposition leader besting the Prime Minister at PMQs. They temporarily boost party morale.

In these circumstances, they are tailor-made for protest. That should help UKIP, which Lord Tebbit is somewhat treacherously backing since he seems to be no more impressed with the coalition than he is with the European Union out of which UKIP wants to lead us.

Saddled with the Europhile Liberal Democrats, David Cameron's performance on Europe is not exactly inspiring.

But I suspect this border country has its mind less on the EU and more on the economy, jobs, VAT, student tuition fees, the need to sort out the national mess, disgust over MPs' expenses latterly revived by the imprisonment of David Chaytor and the dirty work at the Dobcrossroads that caused this by-election.

Anyone who reckons he can tell you how this mix will work out in the polling booth, even with Labour riding high in the polls and the Liberal Democrats wallowing at their lowest level for 20 years, will be wearing the broad check suit of a snake oil salesman.

It is difficult to make a case for any of the three main parties. Cameron has not communicated a burning desire for the Conservative candidate to win. There is a suspicion that he is more concerned to prop up Nick Clegg and the coalition than paint the town blue.

This sort of manoeuvring does not endear you to Tory activists, whose loyalty is being tested. They are going to need cultivating sooner rather than later if Cameron is to remain in charge of a fighting force.

Frankly, while Labour may win, it does not deserve a single vote. A party that has had its member, Phil Woolas, slung out for telling potentially inflammatory lies about his Liberal Democrat opponent in a racially sensitive area ought to be punished as well.

The other reason is Ed Miliband. His recent claim that Britain's 150bn deficit was not caused by chronic overspending but by a global financial crisis that brought a recession and a collapse in tax revenue renders him not merely incredible, given Gordon Brown's profligacy, but a menace to economic management.

It is true that Miliband will mercifully not soon be in charge of the economy. But the last thing the electorate should do is to encourage his daft and dangerous notions.

Together, Miliband and Woolas are the best possible reasons for voting for anybody but Labour tomorrow.

That leaves the Liberal Democrat, Elwyn Watkins. He has something to commend him as a force for good in Parliament. He seems to be as admirably blunt as he was determined to bring Woolas to the justice of the courts. This could point to his becoming yet another LD pain for the coalition if he were elected.

That is not what the nation requires as it goes into the crucial year for economic recovery. There are enough LD whingers and wobblers around, not to mention Simon Hughes, deputy Lib Dem leader, who wants universities "to reflect society" by rationing places for private school pupils in favour of state school students.

And to think some of us thought universities were in the business of academic excellence and learning! Hughes would put us on the short route to national decay and decline. He has done his candidate a major disservice.

With all this swirling around, I suspect the reflective part of Oldham East is desperately seeking a pointer to the sensible vote. For me, it would be for the candidate felt most likely to stand firm in support of the coalition's prime job of restoring our economic fortunes. That is really all that matters tomorrow.

Labour has disqualified itself. UKIP is mere self-indulgence. A Tory win for barrister Kashif Ali would strengthen Cameron but weaken Clegg and a Lib Dem victory would reinforce Clegg but plague Cameron. Which would help the recovery most?

Not that it matters all that much. Oldham is not going to dissolve the coalition, though it could help it bump along.