He was always Maggie’s favourite. She loved him. He adored her. But as in most hot romances, there was a cooling. And finally the embers died. Essex Man had found another. In slightly less than a decade a Tory majority of 17,000 in Braintree had turned, incredibly, into a 358 majority for Labour. Braintree, with an electorate of 82,000, is now the second most marginal majority in England and may well hold a clue to how the rest of the South votes.
Mrs Thatcher had a special place in Essex Man’s heart. She had given him a chance to buy his own council house plus the confidence and tax breaks to start his own business, instead of working under the union yoke.
To find out how Essex Man will vote this time, I spent the day canvassing with Brooks Newmark, the Tory candidate for Braintree, Britain’s fastest-growing town.
Brooks is an American-born Oxford graduate and fund manager who married the daughter of the Daily Telegraph defence correspondent Sir John Keegan. I first met him when I tried to borrow money from him to fund one of my ventures. He said no, but the way he said it impressed me. He simply put the phone down. He is bright, energetic and confident. There aren’t many like him in senior Tory ranks right now.
I caught up with Brooks and his agent, Rikki Williams, at their rather dowdy offices in Witham, home to most of the C2 Thatcherite voters in the constituency. Brooks hits the door-knockers 12 hours a day and at the last general election he lost 10lbs in weight (on that basis, John Prescott must be campaigning from an armchair). From my time on the doorstep, sorting the wheat from the chav, the following emerges: Tony Blair is widely disliked and disbelieved. I am indebted to a chap with earrings and half of the Rover spare-part business on his front lawn who described our Prime Minister as a ‘nob’ or possibly a ‘knob’. That was the general view of our Tone.
Apathy and holidays are likely to lead to a further fall in turnout. Last time the number fell to 59 per cent. From my doorstep discussions I believe the turnout will go down to about 50 per cent, a catastrophic figure which will no doubt make politicians think about forcing people to vote. Tories will certainly turn out; Labour voters seem more hesitant.
It was sometimes tough to get the people even to come to the door. I could see from the street one rather large woman shovelling a massive cheese sandwich into a mouth that Cherie Blair would have been proud of. She was watching TV and her children were attacking her from all angles. Brooks and I knocked on the door for a good three minutes until I looked up to see that the woman had made a decision — she was pulling the curtains shut.
Immigration is an issue, but not a massive one. It’s a very white constituency, and Michael Howard has struck a chord. Many voters are overspill families from London’s East End, and they told me they had come to Braintree to escape the changing culture and colour of their Cockney roots. But travellers are a bigger local issue than immigrants. They have just dumped themselves in the grounds of a local hospital and refuse to move. It seems to me that the gypsies will prove more helpful to the Tories than the immigrant issue.
So what will all this mean on 5 May? My bet is that Labour have had it. They have not been helped by the sitting MP Alan Hurst who, despite running a legal practice in Southend, has never bought a home in the area. The number of Vote Labour posters is way down on the last election, and there seems to be a lack of energy about the Labour campaign. I would say that Brooks, a father of five, will shortly be spending less time with his family and that he could easily have a majority of between 3,000 and 4,000.
Essex Man is back where he belongs. Maggie, send him a text and tell him how much you’ve missed him.