Over the past few weeks, I have been on the doorstep with candidates for the European Parliament and for the local council, where elections are due to be held. If I said that the prospect of voting on June 10th had set North West Hampshire alight in anticipation, I would be overstating the case. People, as ever, have been courteous on the doorstep, but coy about whether and how they might vote on June 10th. To avoid antagonising the younger voter, we finished canvassing last Friday well before the last episode of Friends was transmitted.
One evening earlier in the campaign, we canvassed Ecchinswell. Although a small village, it is exceptionally long, starting it would appear just to the north of Overton and ending just to the south of Newbury. One resident thought we were voting on joining the Euro; another on whether we should adopt the new EU constitution; and a third, seeing an MP on the doorstep, assumed the Prime Minister had called a snap General Election. The situation in Iraq, serious issue though it is, was not raised at all. The convergence of the political parties somewhere near the centre of the political spectrum, and the removal of the large ideological mountains of the 70’s and 80’s - nationalisation, CND, trade union power – has left the landscape somewhat flat and people disoriented. “What difference will it make?” was a common reaction.
After canvassing in Ecchinswell and walking many miles, we were spotted in the Royal Oak by the husband of a Daily Telegraph columnist. Tall men in suits discomfited by the low ceiling, she reported, had taken over the pub, and given the regulars a fresh topic of conversation.
Politicians normally welcome comments such as this in the press, particularly in the Telegraph - the house journal of my Party. But the press can be uncomplimentary.
When Secretary of State for Transport in the 1990’s, I visited a major civil engineering project in the East Midlands when it was under construction – namely the Southern Derby Relief road. I was shown into a contractor’s hut, on the walls of which were many scantily clad ladies, ostensibly enabling the men to know what month it was. Also on the wall, visually less appealing, was a large-scale map of the road showing it cutting through a number of villages.
To find out exactly where I was, I pointed at the map and asked where Derby was in relation to it.
The headline of the local paper the next day was “Where is Derby?” asks Transport Secretary.