DAN HODGES: The Tory nightmare? Someone shouts: Brexiteers Assemble!
DAN HODGES: The new nightmarish image that stalks Tory MPs in key marginal seats? It’s that somebody shouts… Brexiteers Assemble!
Steve isn’t happy. The South-East London builder is worried about our borders and the prospect of a new lockdown.
‘We’re a great country,’ he tells me, ‘but we keep selling ourselves short. We just need to get our heads down and get on with it.’
I’ve come to Old Bexley and Sidcup, for the by-election caused by the death of former Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire.
A normally rock-solid Conservative seat, I’ve been told Tory high command is becoming increasingly nervous that a combination of sleaze, the migrant crisis and disillusionment with Boris could see their 18,952 majority cut dramatically.
According to Reform Party sources, discussions have been held between Tice and former actor Laurence Fox over the formation of an electoral pact between Reform and Fox’s own anti-woke, free-speech party Reclaim. And last week rumours began to circulate that Farage could be about to make another of his regular returns to frontline politics
As Steve takes another bite of his bacon roll, I wait for the lifelong Tory voter – who is still suffering from the effects of long Covid – to explain how his Government and Prime Minister have let him down. He doesn’t. ‘It’s easy for people to criticise him. But during the pandemic, Boris spent a lot of money trying to protect people. I think he’s doing OK,’ he says.
A bit further down picturesque Bexley Village, I get talking to David, who runs a clothes shop. And it seems I’ve found one of those voters Conservative Central Office is so concerned about.
‘Boris?’ he rolls his eyes. ‘He’s a joke. He’s an embarrassment. Losing his place in a speech to an audience as important as that. Can you imagine Margaret Thatcher doing it? Or Ted Heath?’
In 2019, Labour came second in this seat. So these words will be music to Sir Keir Starmer’s ears. But then the music abruptly stops.
‘This is the worst government ever,’ David adds. ‘The only problem is their opponents are even worse.’
In truth, Labour are downplaying expectations. Starmer hasn’t visited the constituency to support his candidate, local councillor Daniel Francis, and I’m told has no plans to.
Someone who is hopeful of making a breakthrough here is Reform Party leader Richard Tice. As he strides energetically up and down the driveways of the large semis lining Hurst Road, Tice claims Boris ‘has become a real liability’ on the doorsteps. ‘It’s extraordinary,’ he says. ‘You’ve got lifelong Tories saying they’re not voting again until he’s gone.’
A bit further down picturesque Bexley Village, I get talking to David, who runs a clothes shop. And it seems I’ve found one of those voters Conservative Central Office is so concerned about. ‘Boris?’ he rolls his eyes. ‘He’s a joke. He’s an embarrassment. Losing his place in a speech to an audience as important as that. Can you imagine Margaret Thatcher doing it? Or Ted Heath?’
But are they going to vote for the former Brexit Party chairman and his posse of rebranded insurgents? The first few doors he knocks on don’t look especially hopeful.
One woman is too busy to talk. Her neighbour is a passionate Remainer. Another thinks he’s going to vote Tory but before Tice can try to dissuade him, his son angrily shouts: ‘Can you leave my father alone!’
But the next door is opened by Graham and Susan. They explain they’ve voted Conservative in the past but not this time. ‘We need drastic change,’ Susan says. ‘All we get is flip-flop. And Boris is just part of the elite.’
This is the antipathy I’d been warned to expect. One Tory MP who had been canvassing here told me: ‘It’s bad. The only issue that’s coming up on the doorstep are the Channel crossings.’
A Minister was even more blunt: ‘A lot of our voters down there think Boris has lost the plot.’
The person charged with helping the Prime Minister relocate the plot is Louie French, former deputy leader of Bexley Council. Unfortunately – and in keeping with recent Conservative campaign strategy – French is being kept safely away from the media, not to mention some of his potential voters.
‘James Brokenshire was liked around here,’ says Sharon, who runs the local tea shop. ‘If you contacted him he’d always respond. But I emailed Louie. Nothing.’
Would that stop her voting Tory on Thursday? ‘No. I think Boris has done a good job. He’s done his best. He couldn’t have been expected to see Covid coming, could he?’
What about the recent Peppa Pig debacle? Accusations that he’s losing his grip? ‘He makes me laugh. We need a bit of that. I like it. He reminds me of his Spitting Image puppet.’
By-elections are notoriously anarchic political events. But after a couple of days wandering around Old Bexley and Sidcup, a few things seem clear. Whatever concerns people in this part of the Tory Blue Wall may have, for the moment many of them seem to be sticking with Boris.
The Conservative vote is also being boosted by strong residual affection for Brokenshire, who was well respected locally. And whatever movement there may be in the national polls, Labour and Starmer are not yet being thought about seriously, if at all.
But there is still danger for Boris here. And it resides in the strategy that was set out for me by Tice. ‘What we’re trying to do is set off a domino effect,’ he told me.
‘We don’t have to win, we just need to make a breakthrough. Then we can take that into the by-election up in North Shropshire. Then we take that momentum into the local elections next year. And then we’re away.’
The question for Tice is how to force over that initial domino. He has certainly professionalised his party’s operation. Canvassing sessions with its predecessors, Ukip and the Brexit Party, frequently became extended pub crawls.
He has distributed a glossy 20-page leaflet to every address in the constituency. And door-knocking is now managed by a high-tech new mobile app imported from the United States.
Yet Tice does not display the charisma of a true political populist. His positions are considered and well articulated, but they lack passion. And he has yet to generate the energy and enthusiasm that saw Nigel Farage storm to triumph in the 2014 Euro elections.
But that might be about to change. According to Reform Party sources, discussions have been held between Tice and former actor Laurence Fox over the formation of an electoral pact between Reform and Fox’s own anti-woke, free-speech party Reclaim.
And last week rumours began to circulate that Farage could be about to make another of his regular returns to frontline politics.
This is the nightmarish image that stalks the fevered dreams of marginal Tory MPs. Someone shouts ‘Brexiteers Assemble!’ and the disparate group of Right-wing showmen currently circulating the political fringes unite and pool their superpowers.
As Tice told me: ‘What Boris and the Tories are terrified of is a pincer movement. You’d have Starmer’s Labour and the Greens on the Left. And Reform attacking from the Right.
‘We’re going to be running 600 MPs against the Tories at the next Election. And we won’t be standing a single one down in the way we did last time.’
For that pincer movement to commence, Tice needs his Bexley breakthrough. It’s possible.
In 2015, Ukip came within 300 votes of beating Labour into third place. And with Sir Keir flatlining, disaffected Tories really have only one place to go.
From what I saw and heard, the voters of Old Bexley and Sidcup look as if they might just be prepared to overlook Boris’s recent blundering. But if they don’t, Richard Tice and the anti-woke avengers are waiting to pounce.
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