Here we are,” the cab driver laughed as he pulled up outside the Wainscott Memorial hall. “The arsehole of Kent.” That wasn’t quite the description David Cameron used when he arrived half an hour later to give a brief call-to-arms and introduce the two hopefuls, Anna Firth and Kelly Tolhurst, seeking the Tory nomination for the Rochester and Strood byelection precipitated by the defection of the sitting Conservative MP, Mark Reckless, to Ukip. Yet even Wainscott’s most loyal residents are hard pushed to describe their hall as anything other than basic; hope more usually comes here in the shape of WI and spiritualist meetings than the PM.
These are strange times: a referendum wrapped in two byelections inside an eight-month general election campaign. Stranger still that Cameron should be as toxic on the edges of Essex and Kent as he was in Scotland; he daren’t go out to do meet-and-greets in the streets in case he’s heckled or asked something tricky, – don’t mention Lord Freud anyone – so his appearance on Thursday was limited to a handful of local residents who could be relied on not to make trouble. A handful of retired Tory party members, including one man in knee-length woollen socks and faded khaki shorts; the sort of people on whom the empire has never set. Not forgetting a couple of black faces – a deal-breaker rider in every rentacrowd contract for the Dave Roadshow.
Cameron bustled into the hall and made a quick bid to reinvent himself as David Farage, Nigel’s more sober younger brother. He understood the concerns of local residents, he’d even driven through Kent several times to the Eurotunnel en route to the Dordogne, and, if they would just bear with him, he’d give them everything that Ukip had already promised. Last week it was Vote Ukip, Get Labour; now the message had shifted to Vote Tory, Get Ukip. A few Conservative old-timers nodded appreciatively at this, though they might just have been nodding off. It was nearly lunchtime, after all.
First up on the hustings after the prime minister’s introduction was Anna Firth, a local barrister. She lost her audience the moment she opened her mouth.
The Tories aren’t going to hold off Ukip with a candidate straight from central casting and a voice that sounds like a radio presenter from the 1950s. “This is the Home service,” she said. “Today I want to talk to you about hospitals, schools and preserving the village green … ” Radio static from decades past mercifully filled the airwaves and blocked out the rest of her address.
Then came Tolhurst, a larger than life local woman who talked as if she’d happily take Reckless out in under three rounds. She’d picked up her Brownie badge for pest control in this very hall. “I, too, want three things,” she insisted. They must have both been told by Tory High Command they were only allowed to want three things. “I want better hospitals. I want better schools. And secondly, I want ... ” Maths may not have been Kelly’s strong point.
The differences between the two candidates became even more marked when the audience was invited to ask questions. “Will you ever lie to us like Mark Reckless?” one man asked. “No, no, no, I have a theory ... ” said Anna, who had by now morphed into Monty Python’s Anne Elk. Kelly was rather more equivocal, with a cunning use of a possible double negative. “Absolutely not, I will not lie to you,” she said. As there has been some uncertainty about her age during the campaign she was probably wise to hedge her bets.
On policing they were both very much in favour of maximum force and SWAT teams. “I have another theory,” said Anne Elk. “The police are needed for the night-time economy,” said Kelly. “They are also needed for the daytime economy.” Dusk and daybreak didn’t get a mention. “The thing about drug dealers,” she continued, “is that you don’t often get to see them.” She will go far in Rochester: if not to Westminster then at least to seeing her name on the ballot paper.
Having competed with one another to deport as many immigrants as possible at a hustings from which the media had been barred the previous night, Cameron wisely decided not to let either Anna or Kelly take any questions on that subject. Instead, he fielded it himself.
“Can you reassure us that ethnic minorities won’t be singled out when we start throwing out immigrants?” asked one of the black men.
Dave’s face furrowed with a concern of the highest possible order as he channelled his “Some of my best friends are black” voice.
“I’m glad you mentioned this. I get constant phone calls from black people about this,” he said, implying there was a black person’s Downing Street helpline rather than an occasional call from Barack Obama. “Ethnic minorities absolutely will not become targets.”
To underline the point, and to re-establish his sensitivity for race relations, he later said: “There will be no lynching here.”
What there also wouldn’t be in Dave’s modern, Conservakipper world were any Brits being press-ganged into a European army. Nor a foreign flag flying over Downing Street. The Union Jack, which had drooped over Rochester Castle throughout the morning, fluttered briefly.