The Campaign turns a bit chillier this week. As winter sets in, I am leading teams to neighbouring marginal seats - Stroud and Cheltenham in particular. And I am taking a couple of days out to chair a long-planned International conference on Antarctica. (Good to get a mention on the Today Programme on Saturday about it.)
We have had an absolutely brilliant campaign in North Wiltshire so far. We have visited (virtually) every corner of the patch, canvassed 15,000 houses finding about 4000 people at home. We have used direct mail, social media, a hand delivery of 20,000 leaflets and countless calling cards; three Royal Mail Freepost letters which should be dropping through letter boxes from now until the election; we have distributed hundreds of paper and correx posters, toured the high streets, attended hustings meetings, done some local press work, and been seen around in every village and town. It’s just been a huge success.
Having done all of that, and without any kind of complacency, I have now concluded that as long as all of those who have promised to vote Conservative actually get out on the day and do so, we will hold North Wiltshire. And quite frankly, whether we do that by one vote, 10,000 or 20,000 doesn’t matter all that much, apart from massaging the ego of the candidate! But there is not much point in increasing our majority here if we do not form a majority Conservative Government.
So at risk of disappointing some villages or some people who I have not been able to meet in the last month or so, we have now decided to switch our attention away from North Wiltshire and see what help we can give in nearby marginals. We have already sent teams in to Chippenham, and Thornbury and Yate. We had a big team in the pouring rain in Stroud last week, and now want to do all we can to help there (which would be a Conservative win from Labour) and in Cheltenham (which is on a knife edge. Our great candidate, Alex Chalk, is fighting a stout action to hold off the Liberals).
And on Monday and Tuesday, I took time out from campaigning to chair the first ever Antarctic Parliamentarians Assembly in London. This is a conference on which I have been working for more than a year now. It’s the first of its kind - bringing together Parliamentarians from across the Globe to discuss issues of huge international importance. Timed to coincide with Antarctica Day and the 60th Anniversary of the signing of the Antarctic Treaty, Parliamentary delegations were invited from the 54 signatory countries to take part in discussions and debates about subjects ranging from climate change and the melting Antarctic ice sheets, to the increase in polar tourism and protecting Antarctic biodiversity.
Sir David Attenborough sent his apologies for not being able to attend due to his filming commitments, and commented: “It is a very worthwhile initiative and I hope that your deliberations will produce results which will help preserve and enhance the great White Continent. The challenges we face in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean are both alarming and urgent, and I call on your parliaments and governments to work together to act decisively and collectively for the preservation of the continent.”
So without in any way neglecting North Wiltshire, I am using a bit of time to help secure an overall victory for the Tories, and for the world’s environment as well.
“On 2 and 3 December, I am taking time out from the hectic campaign in North Wiltshire to chair the first ever Antarctic Parliamentarians Assembly which is taking place in London’s Royal United Services Institute in Whitehall” said North Wiltshire Conservative candidate, James Gray today.
“This is a conference on which I have been working for more than a year now. It’s the first of its kind- bringing together Parliamentarians from across the Globe to discuss issues of huge international importance, including, but by no means limited to, Climate Change.”
Timed to coincide with Antarctica Day and the 60th Anniversary of the signing of the Antarctic Treaty, Parliamentary delegations were invited from the 54 signatory countries of the Antarctic Treaty to take part in discussions and debates about subjects ranging from climate change and the melting Antarctic ice sheets, to the increase in polar tourism and protecting Antarctic biodiversity.
Sir David Attenborough sent his apologies for not being able to attend the APA due to filming commitments and commented: “It is a very worthwhile initiative and I hope that your deliberations will produce results which will help preserve and enhance the great White Continent. The challenges we face in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean are both alarming and urgent, and I call on your parliaments and governments to work together to act decisively and collectively for the preservation of the continent.”
There will be presentations from scientists and experts from countries as diverse as Australia, New Zealand, Norway and Brazil, as well as Lord Ahmad, UK Minister for the Polar Regions and Professor Dame Jane Francis, Director of British Antarctic Survey.
James Gray, who was Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Polar Regions until the Election campaign started commented:
“The signing of the Antarctic Treaty, under which the great wilderness is preserved for science and saved from either military or commercial use, was a truly historic moment. To mark its 60th anniversary, I am delighted to convene the first ever Antarctic Parliamentarians Assembly, and I hope that this will become the first of many Assemblies that will be held in the future.”
The team and I have knocked on about 10,000 doors so far this Campaign, and recorded something like 3500 Voting Intentions, so it’s a pretty good survey. We have also been doing a fair bit in neighbouring constituencies- what is called ‘Mutual Aid’ although it sometimes feels a bit one sided! It’s a fascinating sociological and political experience. Here are a few sample responses:-
“Always been a Conservative/Labour/Lib Dem.” (No problem there for the entry on the canvass card). Pro/anti Brexit, although the voting intention nonetheless sometimes bit hazy. “Want to leave the EU. So voting LibDem” is one of the most curious. Very few Corbyn lovers- in fact none that I have met. A great many Boris lovers, although a few doubters even amongst good Tory voters. (Marmite.) The funniest, and music to my egotistical ears came when I was canvassing a neighbouring marginal seat. “On no. I’m not voting Conservative. Can’t stand xyz the local Tory MP because he always supports the Government. I’d vote for that James Gray if we had him here.” Er, thank you so much, Madam. You have just made my Campaign.”
There’s a myriad of reasons for voting in any particular way. But only one thing is truly central, and trumps all other considerations: do you want a Conservative Government and all that we stand for, or do you want a hard-left Socialist Government led by Mr Corbyn? Those are the only two possible outcomes. Any kind of hung Parliament or minority Government would just be a continuation of the paralysis we have seen over the last two or three years. There won’t be a Lib Dem Government, no matter what their Leader may ludicrously claim. (‘Go back to your constituencies and prepare for Government’ as my friend David Steel told the Liberal Conference in 1981, yet achieving only 23 MPs at the General Election. History may be repeating itself.)
So flattered as we local candidates may be at praise (or saddened by criticism); easy as personal liking (or hating) of the leaders may be; the fact is that this is not a Presidential election. You are not electing the PM. You are electing a Government; therefore, all that matters are the respective Manifestoes.
Now I suspect that precious few voters actually ever see the Manifesto, and all bar the very well informed never read it. So here are a few easy headlines from each:
Labour plans to spend a colossal £83bn more on current spending each year, apparently financed by ‘re-writing the rules of the economy’. This would represent the biggest hike in taxes ever recorded in peacetime. It would impact not just on those areas identified such as higher rate taxes, corporation taxes, death duties and windfall taxes on the oil companies, but also on almost everybody else who would have to pay the higher prices which would result. Removal of the single person’s discount for Council Tax would hit single people particularly hard and would include many people who are certainly not the wealthiest 5% as Labour claim. If all this was not enough, Labour promised on Sunday another £58bn would be spent on effectively reversing certain pension changes – this last promise was not even in their manifesto and is in addition to all the other tax rises planned. They would nationalise Water, Energy and Royal Mail at vast and unquantified cost; create a state-owned drugs manufacturer; provide free long-term care for the elderly, and abolish university tuition fees. Its good Old Labour Tax and Spend. Private schools would be “integrated into the comprehensive education system,” rent controls imposed on private landlords; they would build a million new Council houses; and undertake a Brexit renegotiation followed by a second referendum in which the PM would be neutral. (Good negotiating tactic, eh?)
Lib Dems would: Cancel Brexit (democratically ignoring the Referendum); splurge £130 Billion on infrastructure; give £10,000 to every adult to improve education and training throughout life; they would legalise marijuana, raising £1.5 Billion in tax (a lot of spliffs there.) And they would do a load of other worthy enough stuff which they know perfectly well they will never have to implement, since they cannot form a government.
And the Tories? Our Manifesto will get a full Column all to itself. So watch this space.
I feel no remorse about cramming the other Manifestoes into yesterday’s column and devoting a whole page to the Tory one. It may seem unbalanced, but then I am the Tory candidate, so perhaps I am allowed to be a bit biased. And anyhow, there seems like a strong likelihood that it will be a Conservative Government, and therefore the contents of our Manifesto might be just a little more important than the Green Party or Lib Dems. So here is my take on the main content.
It’s not all about Brexit. I welcome the fact that we are pledging to get at least the Second Reading of the Withdrawal Act passed through Parliament before Christmas. It may take some late nights, or sitting uncomfortably close to the day itself. But that seems to me to be a worthy indication of our determination to get it done by January 31.
But the main thrust and importance of the Manifesto is what we will do after Brexit is behind us. And in the words of my predecessor Captain Cazalet (1923-1942) in his election card: “Your support is asked for V. A. Cazalet. The man you know. No wild promises but a record of performance and a policy of steady progress.” So it’s not a dramatic nor over-promising Manifesto, and nor should it be. You must never forget that every penny spent is a penny of taxpayer’s money, and it must be used wisely. (Unlike Labour whose latest promise on the WASPI women would cost an unfunded £58 Billion)
Our much more modest proposals, all of which are wholly affordable include:- better hospitals (6 new ones now, 34 others in the planning stage, 20 others refurbished), alongside £34 Billion extra funding for the NHS, 50,000 more nurses and 50 million more GP appointments; increased funding for schools, and a correction to the imbalance in the funding system which has left Wiltshire trailing similar counties; and 20,000 more police who are already being recruited and trained. Tougher sentencing, especially for murder will be of especial importance locally.
The detail is worth reading too - an Australian style points based immigration system; a triple lock to ensure that income tax, VAT and National Insurance cannot be increased; millions more invested in science, apprenticeships and infrastructure while still controlling debt; a renewed commitment to reach net zero carbon by 2050 with investment in green energy and infrastructure to reduce emissions and pollution; a £640 million Nature for Climate Fund, 30,000 trees planted every year; a £500 million Blue Planet Fund to preserve our oceans, and to end plastic waste landing up in them. Then there is a £1 Billion boost for childcare; an end to unfair hospital parking charging; £2 Billion on potholes and infrastructure; support for small businesses by cutting and reforming business rates, and so much else too.
And – crucially important- these commitments are all costed and funded and can be met within the expected growth in the economy and through continuing low interest rates.
Well I would say this, wouldn’t I, but it strikes me as one of the best Manifestoes I have ever read; crammed with great commitments, and actually deliverable, unlike the pie in the sky promises from Labour. Those who read these things will, without doubt, be renewing their support for the Tory Party as a result.
I am taking nothing for granted, and so have spent the first two weeks of the campaign on the doorstep in every corner of the Constituency. Our team has covered a lot of ground, ranking 6th in the country last week for number of houses canvassed, and meeting something like 2,000 voters, so a reasonable sample.
The canvass result is pretty consistent. People have had enough of Brexit and ‘just want to get it done’, no matter which side of the argument they may have been on. They want to see us get on with the real agenda- health and education, housing, the environment, law and order, the economy and so much more. Real life has felt it was more or less on the back burner over the last couple of years. There is so much to do, and we need a decent majority to get it done.
The minority parties are pretty much steady on the last election – 17% of the electorate or thereabouts each for the Labour Party and the Lib Dems. The Brexit Party have of course dropped out of the running. Perhaps because of their failure to achieve any traction in North Wilts, there has been a bit of an outbreak of undemocratic shenanigans from the other parties. Many of our posters have been vandalised or torn down. You’d have thought that a blue poster would be pretty inoffensive. The Lib Dems have been sending out a leaflet claiming that they are “only 4% behind the Tories”. Its only when you check the small print that you find this comes from some poll, commissioned- surprise, surprise- by the Lib Dems, with no figures given for the numbers polled nor any other back-up evidence. Well I can tell them that I have conducted a very scientific poll of at least 2000 electors and I do not believe their claim to be accurate.
The Green Party are not free of blame either. One of their Box activists bearded me in the street, desperately trying to make me lose my temper. She shouted at me, and would not let me get a word in edgeways. All true to normal form. Yet what I did not know was that she was covertly filming the episode and has now put it out on social media. Covert filming is a pretty desperate tactic but anyone who manages to wade through the footage will just some lady banging on and not pausing for breathe nor allowing any responses from me.
Then again, I was guilty of a very minor traffic violation in my Battle Bus in Malmesbury, for which I am sorry. I inadvertently turned right because of poor signage. One of my most regular correspondents, who outspokenly disagrees with me in every way immediately leaked the (non) story to the local papers. I suspect that his motives may have been less about road safety and more about party political point scoring.
Well all I would say to them all is: let’s grow up. Let’s exchange intelligent discourse about policy matters. And let’s try to put these childish campaigning tactics back in the school kids’ box of party political games. I shall anyhow ignore it all, and you can be certain that subsequent bulletins will be about national and local policy matters.
© 2019 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.