Is it acceptable to draw a Hitler moustache on your opponent’s face? Nigel Farage would no doubt defend an Englishman’s right to make whatever tasteless references to that ghastly little man seem like a good idea at the time.
Yesterday it seemed like a good idea to someone to draw a Hitler moustache on Farage’s face, on the side of the UKIP bus parked by the railway station at Grays, main town in the acutely marginal seat of Thurrock. Next to the moustache appeared the UKIP slogan “Real change for real people.”
The sight of the moustache caused hilarity on the Tory bus. Perhaps there is something about travelling on the top of an open-top bus which renders one peculiarly susceptible to hilarity. The sun shone and a cool but invigorating sea breeze blew in the faces of about 30 supporters of Jackie Doyle-Price, who in 2010 gained Thurrock for the Conservatives by the slender margin of 92 votes.
Being on the top of a bus promotes a delightful feeling of togetherness: there is plenty of time to chat to each other. Contact with voters is maintained via a loud hailer, by holding up Jackie Doyle-Price placards, and by waving. There is something curiously enjoyable about waving at total strangers from an open-top bus.
Many of them waved back. Small children find it irresistible to wave at anyone who is waving at them from a moving platform. The heads of older people turned: some smiling, some puzzled, some frowning and shouting insults which were fortunately for the most part inaudible on the top of the bus.
In a new area of housing in Chafford Hundred, a high-spirited young woman yelled “Vote Labour”, perhaps as much in order to amuse her friends as to defy Team Jackie. A man in one of the run-down council estates close to the docks in Tilbury, who was stripped to the waist and appeared to be drunk, managed with perfect audibility to convey the view that we are “a load of f***ing w***ers”. In order to show I was in no way hurt, I gave him a genial wave.
Our driver stopped outside UKIP headquarters, which are in a low row of shops, between the Bloodline Tattoo Parlour and Mo’s Tailoring, and above the Freshfill Snack Bar. Tim Aker, the UKIP candidate, proved curiously inaccessible when the Financial Times asked to talk to him. We tried to reach him by waving at him through the window of his office.
In the dim interior, a figure could just be descried, sitting motionless in front of a computer. Could it be that we were being ignored by the enigmatic Aker himself, or had he delegated that duty to a member of his staff? Whoever was sitting at the keyboard resisted the temptation to turn round and say “Go away”, or words to that effect, even when the driver of the bus sounded his horn and Team Jackie cheered their loudest. A man emerged from Mo’s Tailoring and smiled.
One just hopes tragedy has not struck the UKIP office. But perhaps the whole set-up was a decoy. At the next roundabout, a nippy UKIP van, bearing the words “Here comes common sense”, cut in front of our lumbering bus and raced off none knew whither. It could be that UKIP is fighting a war of movement.
A few minutes later, something even more alarming happened. As we toured a quiet, residential area, my head nearly got knocked off by the branch of an oak tree. Only cries of warning by members of Team Jackie averted this setback. One should in fairness add that there is no evidence UKIP planted the tree, which looked at least 40 years old. But it just shows how careful you have to be when campaigning on the top of an open-top bus.
Grant Shapps, the Tory Chairman, came aboard. He joined a high-level team which at that point included John Whittingdale (MP for Maldon), Stephen Metcalfe (MP for South Basildon and East Thurrock) and James Duddridge (MP for Rochford and Southend East). It is awful to think what damage could have been inflicted on Essex conservatism if the bus had happened to plunge into one of the chalk pits in which this corner of the county appears so surprisingly rich.
It is necessary, of course, to be prepared during a general election campaign to run a certain amount of risk. But I thought it only prudent to urge Shapps not to get his head knocked off by a tree. We cannot allow the enemy’s decapitation strategy to succeed.
Shapps delivered a short but rousing address, in which he said this was the most important election we would ever campaign in, for our task is nothing less than to stop Ed Miliband and the SNP from destroying the country. In later conversation, Shapps revealed what people have now started to say spontaneously on the doorstep: “Yes I voted UKIP, but it was really to give you guys a kick.”
The UKIP vote is now being squeezed. But where will it go? In Thurrock, some campaigners think it will divide evenly between the Conservatives and Labour, while others think the Conservatives will gain 65 per cent of it to Labour’s 35 per cent. On such questions the outcome will depend.
Doyle-Price said it was unfortunate that last July, an Ashcroft poll appeared which showed the Conservatives in third place in Thurrock, behind UKIP and Labour: both those parties are now trying to persuade voters that the choice is between themselves. But Doyle-Price added that she is “more confident” she will win than she was at the same stage of the 2010 campaign.
Ben Gadsby, 24, who described himself as a “Team Jacky Superfan”, said: “The crazy thing about Thurrock is that there’s hardly anywhere that’s safe for anyone any more.” Formerly Tory areas “go a bit Ukippy”, while others that were previously unpromising start to become more Tory.
As you enter Doyle-Price’s headquarters, you find yourself facing a list which says: “Jackie would like to thank the following MPs for supporting the campaign to win Thurrock”. There follows a list of 69 Tory MPs who have been there to campaign for her since the last general election. David Cameron has visited three times, Liz Truss five times, David Amess eight times.
Yesterday she also had Bim Afolami, the parliamentary candidate in Lewisham Deptford, and Chris Wilford, the parliamentary candidate in Poplar and Limehouse, out campaiging for her. The level of commitment is impressive. As Doyle-Price herself observed, “It’s always like that here. It is a proper scrap.”
Many people in Thurrock have not yet decided how they will vote, or whether they will vote at all. This land at the foot of the Dartford Crossing has a battered feel. One middle-aged man to whom I talked before joining up with Team Jackie complained that he and others are having to “work for peanuts” because wages have been depressed by immigration. If that thought remains uppermost in voters’ minds on election day, Doyle-Price will find it hard to win.
But if the choice is instead between a Conservative Government, which will continue the hard work of economic recovery, and a Labour/SNP one, which will endanger it, her prospects become very much stronger.