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Anti-EU party targets first seat in British by-election

Voters headed to the polls on Thursday in a by-election in central England where anti-EU party UKIP is hoping to send another shockwave through British politics by winning a first seat in parliament.

LONDON: Voters headed to the polls on Thursday in a by-election in central England where anti-EU party UKIP is hoping to send another shockwave through British politics by winning a first seat in parliament.

In the market town of Newark, the United Kingdom Independence Party is trying to capitalise on its success at last month's European Parliament elections.

Opinion polls suggest that after pouring resources into the campaign, Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives should hold off the challenge from Nigel Farage's party, albeit with a hugely-reduced share of the vote.

UKIP topped the European polls last month in what they described as a political "earthquake", beating the Conservatives, the main opposition Labour Party and the Tories' Liberal Democrat coalition partners.

Yet despite its European success on the back of its aim to pull Britain out of the EU and stop "mass immigration", UKIP still does not have a single representative in the Westminster parliament -- a situation Farage has vowed to rectify.

In Newark, UKIP has put up Roger Helmer, a 70-year-old who has sat in the European Parliament since 1999, to take on the Conservatives' Robert Jenrick, a 32-year-old political novice.

Helmer, a former member of the Conservatives, has fought off accusations during the campaign of making dubious comments about homosexuals.

By convention, sitting prime ministers do not normally campaign in by-elections, but Cameron has visited the Nottinghamshire town four times, in a sign of the party's nervousness at UKIP's success.

Finance minister George Osborne and Foreign Secretary William Hague have also joined the campaign trail.

The Times newspaper said the Conservatives had bussed in 300 young activists from universities, with the promise of "curry, clubbing and coupling" in bid to help their candidate over the line.

The by-election was triggered when Patrick Mercer, a former army colonel who had held the seat since 2001, resigned in April as he faced a six-month ban from parliament over a lobbying scandal.

Mercer had been secretly filmed by reporters from The Daily Telegraph newspaper posing as lobbyists representing business interests in Fiji, agreeing to ask favourable questions in parliament if they paid him thousands of pounds.

He quit the Conservatives in 2013 and sat as an independent after the story broke.

"I am an ex-soldier, and I believe that when I've got something wrong, you have got to 'fess up and get on with it," he said as he announced his resignation.

Lawmakers technically cannot resign their seat, so have to take up a paid office of the crown -- the conflict of interest meaning they cannot fairly scrutinise the government.

To quit, Mercer had to become the Crown Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds, a post with roots dating back to the 13th century that has been retained as a sinecure office to allow MPs to quit.

At the last general election in 2010, Mercer won 54 per cent of the vote, ahead of the Labour candidate on 22 per cent, the Liberal Democrats on 20 per cent and UKIP on four.

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