The message on my Blackberry from the Whips office was unequivocal. Two by-elections were due on July 19th. Would I please let them know which three days I would be devoting to the advancement of the fortunes of the party by knocking on doors.
The choice of destination was a no-brainer. One by election is in Sedgefield, to replace our former Prime Minister who prefers to address the problems of the Middle East to those of the towns of County Durham. The other is in Ealing Southall, where the incumbent sadly died last month.
Ealing Southall is easily reached. Five storeys beneath my office in Portcullis House runs the District Line. With my Oyster Card in one hand and the Times Killer Sudoku in the other, I can arrive in Ealing Broadway in half an hour, intellectually alert and ready to sell the message. Sedgefield is a totally different proposition, requiring a credit card, a Sudoku book and much mental re-alignment when I get there.
The choice was further facilitated by the fact that I was MP for part of Ealing Southall and therefore familiar with the geopolitics of the area. For 23 years, I was MP for Ealing Acton - a constituency of beauty and contrast. All the beauty was in Ealing and all the contrast was in Acton. In 1997, the Boundary Commission divided my political base into three, and one of the thirds was annexed by Ealing Southall, obliging me to migrate to North West Hampshire.
So there I was, once again, at Ealing Broadway Station. I noticed that the plaque with my name on it, recording the completion of the station’s refurbishment, was still in place in the station concourse – unvandalised by West London commuters.
On my way to Southall, I went past Ealing Town Hall, scene of many election counts where the results were closer than in NW Hants but took less time to complete.
Our candidate in the by election looks like a film star and appears to have iconic status in the constituency. Whether this will be enough to propel him from third place remains to be seen – but I have been doing my bit.
I was despatched to some streets in Hanwell until there was a downpour (it was Wimbledon week) when I was rescued and , while I dried out, I did some telephone canvassing. I came across some former constituents and was touched that they remembered who I was.
“Sir George Young? Why of course I remember you; when are you going to get the council to sweep my street?”
After hours on the doorsteps and on the telephone, I took my team to an Indian restaurant I used to patronise when I lived there. The Head Waiter, whom I had not seen for ten years, could not have been more professional. The eyebrow flickered momentarily when he saw me; then “Usual table, Sir George?”