By Paul Goodman
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This Wednesday's 1922 elections will be a multi-dimensional contest: left v right, younger MPs v older ones, critics v loyalists, Golden Dawn v Pink Sunset (plus some independents, just to complete the confusion). A slate organised by the 301 group, as Tim has previously reported, will run against a slate that isn't. We are hearing the views of many people from both tickets and none about the Government and the '22 itself – and will hear even more during the next few days – but we haven't heard so far from the man who will decide the contest.
Enter my old friend, J.Alfred Prufrock MP. Prufrock represents an urban seat with a rural hinterland in the West Midlands, which he won by the unreassuring margin of some 3000 votes. He has two children at local schools (having promised before the 2010 election to educate them there), a wife who works in the constituency office (she can cope with constituents, just; she can't cope with MERLIN at all), a home ten minutes drive from it, and a flat in Vauxhaull with a leaky ceiling about which he is in permanent correspondence with IPSA.
Prufrock only half-expected to win his seat, and was completely surprised by life at Westminster. He didn't have the friendships and connections to get elected to a Select Committee first-time, but has now found a berth on the Regulatory Reform Committee, whose meetings he attends when not in the Chamber, on a standing committee, at an all-party group, writing e-mails, ringing constituents, managing his office, visiting the library, reading his papers, talking to his colleagues, avoiding the local paper or searching for his Whip.
He is passionate about the Faroe Islands, real ale, Wolverhampton Wanderers and improving cycle routes, and would very much like to be a PPS at the Ministry of Transport. Actually, he would very much like to be a PPS almost anywhere, or even a Minister, but he has done the maths and knows his limitations. He is probably in the Smoking Room a bit more often than he should be, but is simply incapable of paperwork after about 7.30 in the evening, and can't think of anywhere else to go while waiting to vote later.
He is broadly on the centre-right of the party, a position he's arrived at not so much by intellectual inquiry as gut instinct. John Hayes signed him up for Cornerstone before he'd really had a chance to think about it, and now he has thought about is not sure it was wise. He is certainly not a habitual rebel, but was among the 81 who voted for an EU referendum. Privately, he can't quite understand why we're in the EU at all, but his vote was determined not so much by this secreted doubt as by the pungent views of his Association Executive.
Prufrock has had three five-minute conversations with David Cameron, once while being photographed with him before the last election, once as part of a larger group at the Ruritanian Embassy, and once at a Downing Street reception for the 2010 intake, where he got the faint but ineradicable impression that the Prime Minister was confusing him with Jesse Norman. George Osborne has diverted some money to his constituency through the Fresh Horizans Enterprise Fund, for which he is less grateful than he surely should be.
He has a violent aversion to all Liberal Democrats – especially that bastard, whatever his name was, who put out leaflets during the 2010 election claiming that Prufrock really lived in the constituency next door. His pleasure at the collapse of their vote in the recent council elections – his local authority elects in thirds – was first balanced out by his pain at the recovery of Labour's, and then nullified altogether by UKIP's performance in the very ward where he lives, damn it: its candidate was a former Deputy Chairman (Finance) of his Association during the mid-1990s.
Prufrock will never star at a Spectator breakfast or pen a Policy Exchange pamphlet, but he has an unerring sense of what his constituents want, finely honed by the unceasing blitz of e-mails. On paper, they want the deficit sorted; in practice, they're nervous about "cuts" and infuriated by the price of petrol. They want all immigration stopped, pretty much; welfare scroungers unfunded, period; British criminals behind bars and foreign ones sent abroad (don't get them going on votes for prisoners).
So on the one hand, he mutely agrees with Nadine Dorries's assessment of the Prime Minister and Chancellor. He is fed up with reading about Kris Hopkins and the 301 Group in the Guardian (not that he reads the Guardian, but it's the only paper left in the tearoom at five in the afternoon), doesn't want to see Downing Street control the '22, and thinks that last week's meeting of PPS's with members of the 301 ticket was improper. He likes Graham Brady and dislikes the 2020 Group, for the perhaps understandable reason that he hasn't been asked to join it.
On the other hand, however, he thinks Ms Dorries was wrong, indeed bonkers, to slag off Messrs Cameron and Osborne in public. He is also fed up to the back teeth with Peter Bone and company for keeping him up late in the Commons needlessly, as he sees it, when he'd rather be back at the flat tucked up in bed (which he has moved to avoid that ceiling leak) with his copy of the The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. He compares and contrasts the '22 with the 40, and finds the former cramped and snuffy by contrast. He thinks that if Tory MPs don't hang together they'll hang separately.
All considered, his thoughts narrow to one point: he wants to save his seat. And he will vote on Wednesday with this very much in mind, regardless of his half-promise to Charlie Elphicke and quarter-wink to Christopher Chope. How else could it be? He is as I have described him before: under-paid, over-worked, IPSA-fearful, ambition-thwarted and constituent-beset, not to mention technology-baffled, alcohol-ready, libido-fearful and ideologically fuddled. Whether these elections are described as a triumph or disaster for David Cameron hangs on his undecided vote.