Vote for Little Britain?

Simon Hooper visits Haltemprice and Howden where David Davis has forced a by-election on civil liber

It's not hard finding David Davis. There he is as I drive through Willerby, standing outside his campaign headquarters, taking advantage of a sunny break between the early morning Yorkshire showers to do his first television interview of the day.

A few minutes later, having warmly greeted the day's visiting Conservative bigwigs, former shadow cabinet colleagues George Osborne and Michael Gove, Davis can barely be restrained from his electorate any longer.

"Howden team this way!" he cries as he strides out of the door, sleeves already rolled up and displaying commendable eagerness for the frontine leafleting and door-stepping that is the main business of by-election canvassing.

This of course has been no ordinary by-election. Since Davis resigned from parliament and the Conservative front bench on 12 June to launch his one-man crusade for civil liberties, he has been both ridiculed as an eccentric political stuntman and feted as that rarest of beasts, a principled independent thinker uncowed by the Westminster spin machine.

With less than two days left of the campaign, both arguments still hold and neither the electorate here in Haltemprice and Howden nor the media seem able to make up their minds which David Davis they prefer.

In many ways, Davis has made his point already. Having attracted a broad spectrum of support from the likes of Tony Benn, Bob Geldof, Martin Bell, Bob Marshall-Andrews and Shami Chakrabarti – who have all ventured north in solidarity with his cause – Davis pretty much won the argument when Labour declined to stand a candidate against him over the issue of 42 days.

Catching up with him later in the day in Howden's picturesque market square, he concedes disappointment that Labour failed to rise to his challenge. "The Prime Minister tells us it's vital to national security and yet they won't defend it? It's pathetic and cowardly, both morally, intellectually and politically," Davis tells newstatesman.com.

But the big battle now, as Davis admits, is turnout – something which may well determine whether he returns to Westminster with his heavyweight reputation enhanced or eroded. This campaign has had the feel of an American primary with issues of national importance being discussed at a local level, something that Davis himself has encouraged. "They are being asked to speak for Britain. This is a referendum," he says.

Yet many on the street express bemusement and reluctance at their involuntary conscription as foot soldiers in the fight for civil liberties. Davis admits that some have not cared for the subtleties of the 42-day debate, equating "terrorist suspects" with "terrorists".

Some say they are more concerned by economic issues and express disapproval at the costs of an "unnecessary" by-election.

And others are just plain rude. "I don't care what he thinks or what he does," says a man in a Howden cafe. "I think he's a dickhead."

Davis' cause has not been aided either by the vapour trail of candidates running in his wake – a 25-strong list ranging from serious-minded opponents such as the Greens' Shan Oakes, the anti-rape campaigner Jill Saward and political reformers such as David Pinder of the New Party to Miss Great Britain, the Monster Raving Looney Party and the Church of the Militant Elvis Party.

Then there is David Icke, whose supporters accuse Davis of banning their candidate from public events and seem to have set out to ambush him wherever he goes. It is an event that has rendered a rich vein of British sature from Monty Python to the League of Gentlemen largely redundant, at times feeling less like a referendum for Britain than a referendum for Little Britain.

But former independent MP Martin Bell for one believes it is a process that has strengthened politics rather than trivialised it, describing the by-election as "a little festival of democracy."

"Anybody has a right, so long as they are a citizen of good standing, to stand for the House of Commons and I think it's admirable that 25 people should do so," Bell told newstatesman.com.

"I suppose what really drives me to come up here is that here is a man who puts his principles before his career and that is so unusual in politics. I accept the fact that people are probably more exercised about the price of petrol than they are about their civil liberties but civil liberties still matter. I think David will come out of this hugely strengthened as a politician."

Bell later takes the stage alongside Davis and filmmaker Chris Atkins at a well-attended village hall event in Eastrington. It is an idyllic summer's evening amid this rolling countyside with a gentle game of cricket forming an elegiac backdrop in the late evening light.

The last Englishman to fight a battle for Anglo-Saxon liberties over this terrain was King Harold, who defeated Harald Hardrada's Viking invaders not so far from here at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. Every good school boy and girl knows what happened next.

But David Davis insists he is gearing up for more battles ahead. "This by-election has lasted 10 days. We will be talking about these issues in 10 years," he tells his audience. But will those constituents turn out to back his cause on Thursday?