No job quite prepares you for life as a parliamentary candidate. But I suspect that a period as a monk would equip you pretty well. We are not actually obliged to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience but observance of the last two is certainly advisable. And life on the hustings does require a certain asceticism. Of all the little pleasures which I miss, now that the election campaign is in earnest, the greatest deprivation is being parted from my new mistress. She’s a delightful little thing, and I’d long yearned to get my hands on her, but my clumsy fumblings had ended in repeated failure, until last November. Which was when I finally passed my driving test, at the seventh attempt. And since then I and my Skoda Fabia have been inseparable companions. But now the election has been called we’ve been parted. The constituency agent in Surrey Heath has decreed that for the duration of this campaign the candidate must be driven from appointment to appointment. At first I thought this was a typically considerate move on my agent’s part to enable me to compose speeches, field calls and get through paperwork. Then my wife gently explained that she and my agent had been inspecting my brand new car after a mere five months on the road. They had both looked at each other after admiring the collection of bumps and scratches I had acquired, which have turned the matt black paintwork into a grey lunar-like landscape. ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ she asked. His reply was definitive — ‘I think we should have someone driving Michael who knows how to go forward and back.’
While I’ve had to give up driving, Liberal Democrat candidates have had to give up drinking. It’s not just their leader who has had to forswear a refreshing glass for the duration of the election. The party’s crop of hopefuls have been instructed not to allow alcohol on their breath while out campaigning. This respectful nod to the party’s Puritan roots sits somewhat at odds with the Lib Dem spokesman on Culture, Media and Sport Don Foster’s commitment to lower the drinking age to 16. Oddly, I haven’t seen that pledge on any Liberal Democrat campaign literature. Nor have I yet seen a Lib Dem leaflet advertising the party’s plans to give criminals in prison the vote, or to abolish mandatory life sentences for murder. Let me make a firm election promise. Any reader who sends in Lib Dem election literature making the positive case for these policies, and avoiding any negative references to opposition candidates, will win a bottle of something amber and Scottish — in honour of Mr Kennedy — from me.
The business of walking up a stranger’s garden path, knocking on their door while they’re putting their children to bed, and then asking them if they’d be kind enough, amid the many pressures they face, to consider voting Conservative on 5 May may not seem enticing. But like swimming in the Serpentine on a winter’s morning, it can have a wonderfully invigorating effect. I should add, in the spirit of honest politics, that I am not a regular at the Hyde Park lake, but my fellow Conservative candidate in New Forest West, Desmond Swayne, who does brave the waters, is a proud advertisement for its beneficial effects.
What makes canvassing worthwhile, what justifies the trepidation as you stand in the rain listening to the ominous barking of an approaching Alsatian, is the feeling when the person you’re asking to support you affirms that yes, they are a Conservative and, yes, they will vote for you. In conversation with another candidate I compared the sensation, in a minor key, to the feeling you get when, after weeks of wrestling with poppers on a sleepsuit and wiping sick off your shirt, your baby gives you its first smile.
My colleague preferred a rather more worldly metaphor: ‘Absolutely, when a voter says yes it’s the moment when all the hard work seems worthwhile, just like when a girl accepts your advances.’ The colleague in question is, I have to say, rather more experienced in that line than I am myself.
If a resident agreeing to vote for you is intoxicating, then the real head-over-heels moment is when they consent to put up a poster in their garden with your name and party on it. When I first saw the pieces of reinforced cardboard bearing my name I found the experience quite exquisitely embarrassing. It seemed rather vulgar to be advertising myself in this way as though I were a piece of discount furniture. But as the campaign has developed I’ve observed the quite shameless way in which the Liberal Democrats will happily ruin scenes of rural Surrey beauty by plonking massive lozenges of orange plastic bearing their name on innocent trees. It’s made me so much keener on seeing our much more tasteful banners go up.
The sheer shamelessness of the Lib Dems was brought home to me the other night when I canvassed a house festooned with orange Lib Dem posters on the garden wall. Conventional canvassing lore tells you to avoid the home of any voter who has already declared their loyalty so publicly. But fuelled by my belief that our party should have no no-go zones, I trooped up the path. A young woman came to the door. I plucked up my courage and asked if she might support us come polling day. Oh yes, she said, she’d definitely be voting Conservative. You could have knocked me down with a postal voting form. Stunned, I gestured lamely towards the posters. I almost hadn’t dared knock on her door because the orange cardboard on her fence had given me the opposite impression. It was, she acknowledged, a little embarrassing. Several friends were even under the misapprehension that she was a Lib Dem. But the posters were there simply because a while back a local Liberal Democrat activist had called and inquired if he might put up ‘a sign’ to help with the election. As a Conservative voter, and therefore an instinctively helpful soul, she had been happy to do what her Lib Dem caller had explained the election required. And so she returned home one day to see the posters there and had left them. Would she, I asked, prefer to have some Conservative posters instead? She was delighted to accept. But not half as delighted as me.
In that one vignette I feel we can see revealed the real nature of the two parties and their supporters. The Liberal Democrats take advantage of the voters’ good nature, mask the real extent of their agenda and all the time operate with hidden ruthlessness, while Conservatives are instinctively community-minded, generous to strangers and always willing to help the vulnerable — in this case, Surrey Heath’s Liberal Democrat team.
The author is a columnist for the Times and the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Surrey Heath.