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The truth about campaigning: Tory assembly candidate James Cleverly on what it's really been like on the Battle Bus

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The candidates are as clueless as anyone else when it comes to gauging who’s winning

“How do you think it’s going?” I keep being asked. Seriously, what am I supposed to say?

I could either give the standard reply, something to do with the election being too close to call, every vote counts, it’s all hanging on turn-out, I’m hopeful of a win but not complacent etc. Or I could tell the truth. The truth being that I haven’t any more of a clue than the person asking me and perhaps considerably less.

The bulk of my campaigning activity over the last few months has been in my own constituency of Bexley and Bromley, statistically the safest Conservative seat in the London Assembly. It is viewed as so naturally Conservative that at a hustings shortly before polling day the local Green party candidate said something like “look, we all know that James is the one who is going to be elected here but….” even I was a little taken aback by that display of disarming political honesty.

I don’t tell you this to brag, but to remind you that I get a rather distorted picture when I ask my local constituents about their voting intentions. If I extrapolate out from the feedback that I get I would say that Boris was looking to win with around 65% of the first preference vote. A meaningless prediction.

I know very well that balancing my Bexley and Bromley, Labour have Lambeth and Southwalk, we have our Hillingdons, Wandsworths and Barnets Labour have their Lewishams, Haringeys and Newhams. From my small bit of the battlefield we are cruising to victory, just up the A20 I’m conscious that we might be getting a drubbing.

Colleagues talk, we compare notes, try to decipher the runes, attempt to see the bigger picture. It doesn’t help, neither they or I can possibly pretend to know what’s really going on.

Having stayed well throughout the campaign I falter on polling day itself. “Campaign Cold” is the common term for the condition, a combination of tiredness, poor diet and karmic irony. Just when you need to be at your best you have a sore throat, runny nose and headache.

I don’t just feel unwell but hugely guilty. Election day is all about meeting people, convincing last minute waverers of the need to vote for Boris and me, thanking and motivating campaign volunteers, doing last minute media. Lots and lots of face to face contact and me acutely aware that if these people wake up in a day or two’s time with the wheezles and sneezles it might be my fault.

Despite my gravelly (and not in a sexy way) voice, red nose and pockets full of wet tissues, people on the pavements and doorsteps of Bexley and Bromley are positive, happy to say that they have already voted for us or intend to do so later in the day.

Mid morning Boris turns up with the double-decker Back Boris Battle Bus and we set off on a whistle stop tour of outer South East London, Sidcup, Bromley, Orpington and Beckenham with Boris getting mobbed in each location. Shoppers and shop workers asking for photos to be taken on their phones, fruit and veg stall holders shouting “Oi! Boris, you got my vote mate!” Boris is in his element, he is good with people, but the tight timings of his day begin to slip as he spends time chatting with voters rather than the traditional politician’s shake hands and move on.

In the four years since the last Mayoral election day he has mastered of the detail of London government, fielding questions and queries that would have floored him with ease last time. We get to the Beckenham Junction train station where he is only a few minutes away from missing his train into town. He is stopped by a young woman, a singe mum, worried about her poor quality landlord and the availability of housing in the borough. Boris explains the relevant elements of his housing policy, cracking down on poor quality housing, introducing space standards and his success in getting funding for social housing. He does so quickly but warmly and the young lady thanks him effusively, as she walks off and he hurries to the platform she says to me “I’m going to vote for him”, I don’t think he hears her.

As Boris steps onto the train which is going to take him from suburbia into central London for more campaigning and as I turn to do the same he looks at me and says “how do you think it’s going?”




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