I’VE been to suburban South East London a few times recently. It is instructive. There is no doubt since the by-election in Old Bexley and Sidcup, occasioned by the sad, early death of James Brokenshire that the mood has changed. I had been there before in the first few days of the campaign and it was clear that this, for the Tories, was going to be a cakewalk.
Brokenshire was a popular MP, the wave of sympathy for him was real. In some odd way, this was buttressed by the horrific murder of Sir David Amess a couple of weeks later.
At that point, despite manifest failures of government in the past few years and despite a growing unease about lockdown measures and dark voices about a new Christmas lockdown, the impact on support for Boris and his government in this bluest of blue London boroughs was imperceptible.
But weeks in politics being what they are, things are changing, and changing fast.
Oh, don’t get me wrong – this isn’t Orpington. But neither is it Chesham and Amersham. From the start of the campaign, it was clear that the Lib Dems were not even interested in this one. So far, their absence has been complete.
The good people of Sidcup have not been inundated with rapidly-Xeroxed bar charts proclaiming the Second Coming, or whatever miraculous outcome that appears on their election flyers.
Sir Edward Davey has recently stated that his Liberal Democrats were only going to fight ‘where they think they can win’. It is clear this is not a strategy derived from focus groups, and political ambition, but one in which he attempts to put a shine on sandstone.
The simple fact is that the Lib Dems cannot fight a ground war on two fronts. If he was being honest about this statement, then he would reduce the ambitions of his party to that of a regional party, standing in fewer than 100 seats nationwide.
He obviously doesn’t believe this, and nor should we. It is a sign of the weakness of the perennial third party that the Lib Dems are making no effort.
Ten years ago they were averaging 15 per cent in the seat, but since the advent of Brexit as a live political issue, their support has slumped badly, and they now lose their deposit with regularity. In North Shropshire they have since 2015 bounced along just over the deposit threshold, but are this month pouring in all the firepower they can manage.
As for Labour, they are working the ground, but in a desultory fashion. They do not hope they will make a breakthrough. People in this borough, below average for unemployment and above average for income and home ownership, are not at all attracted by Sir Keir Starmer’s offer.
Which leaves the Conservatives with a clear run.
Not entirely. There is one itch that Tory HQ cannot quite scratch, and that is the presence of Richard Tice standing for the Reform Party.
Reform will not win of course. But the data its supporters are gathering is interesting. It shows that Tice has good reason to be confident that he will break the five per cent barrier, which the party was unable to do either in Hartlepool, where he himself stood in 2019, or in Chesham and Amersham, where Reform’s vote could be counted in a Harvester at 11am on a dull February Saturday. Not only that, but the perennial problem of new parties – that of name recognition – seems to be diminishing.
According to Ipsos Mori, 40 per cent of Tories think that climate change is the most pressing issue, with 32 per cent citing the economy and 18 per cent citing immigration.
What the figures do not tell us is how many of that 40 per cent mention the issue of the environment in sheer rage at the Government’s plans to drive the public and the economy back into a medieval part-barter economy.
The rise of immigration is an issue, one that people thought had been scotched by Brexit … ‘We will take control of our borders.’ Oh, no we won’t – we will pay Gaulgelt to Monsieur Macron and still welcome more people across the channel this year than turned up in the Great Heathen Army at Repton.
For those tempted by Reform, whose own political heritage lends it trust on the issue, migration is a votecaster. If Tice can get upwards of ten per cent, many in the Red Wall and elsewhere will be looking to their majorities.
But what has really begun to show against what were loyal Tories is something I have not seen since perhaps the dog days of John Major. The corruption scandal that has lapped along Westminster’s committee room corridors and is even now washing across the desk of 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady. He is, I am reliably informed, in receipt of 40 of the required 54 letters needed to force a leadership ballot.
That was bad enough, but Conservative voters are made of stern stuff, and a few MPs making money was never the devastating under-the-Plimsoll-Line hit the lobby supposes.
But Peppa Pig, that is too far. People are not just angry with Boris. They are laughing at decent Tories. Decent, hardworking, small business Conservatives can cope with almost anything this naughty world throws at them. But genuine laughter. It is too shaming to bear.
If the hapless local councillor Louis French gets more votes than Brokenshire had as a majority, I will be very surprised. Brokenshire had a 18,952 majority. If French gets more than 14,000 I will eat (one of) my hats.
Local Tories may not switch their votes, some of them might even turn out. But at Christmas drinks and round the turkey, I doubt any will admit to it. They are just too embarrassed.