The man wore no clothes above the waist. He was about 65 years old, and remarked that Sajid Javid’s visit was “a bit unexpected”.
“You mean you weren’t expecting us?” Javid said with an air of mock surprise.
The man and his wife, who was fully clothed, stood in the doorway of their neat, respectable home and indicated, in a thoughtful tone, that they intend to support UKIP. They are worried about “the EU and the effect it has on UK democracy”, which makes it “difficult to know” what power British MPs still have.
Javid said a few words about Conservative policy on Europe, ending: “That’s why we’ve got to have this referendum. And English votes for English laws is really important to bring that fairness back.”
At this point we were joined by Nigel Mills, who in 2010 won the constituency of Amber Valley, north of Derby, for the Conservatives by the narrow margin of 536 votes. Yesterday afternoon Javid was out campaigning for Mills, in sunshine so brilliant anyone might feel inclined to strip to the waist, especially in the privacy of one’s own home.
“So Nigel can count on your support then?” Javid asked the couple, but the man responded that this was still only “possible”.
Mills mentioned in a modest tone that he was one of the 81 Conservative MPs who had voted for a referendum on EU membership “before it was party policy – close your ears, Sajid”.
The woman told Mills: “We hear you went into our grandson’s school.”
Mills asked which school, and wound things up by saying: “Thank you for your possible support.”
But Javid had not yet finished. In measured tones, he implied that for Mills to lose in Amber Valley would be nothing short of a national disaster: “This is a very marginal seat. There’s only a few hundred votes in it. Is it still a possibly? Are you just teasing him?”
The woman tried to soften the blow by saying of her husband: “He will never vote Labour.” But the man relented, and said he would vote Mills.
“We’ve got your vote!” Javid exclaimed to the couple.
“That’s why he’s in the Cabinet and I’m not,” Mills said. Javid was the first member of the 2010 intake to reach the Cabinet, where in April 2014 he was made Culture Secretary.
As we walked away, Javid said: “You get them to say it and they’ll do it. They would have voted UKIP back in the euro elections. They know now what really matters.”
Javid had earlier enjoyed less success in the constituency of Derby North, where Amanda Solloway is seeking to overturn a Labour majority of 613. He asked a woman selling Italian delicacies from a market stall if this was her first business venture, to which she replied: “I’ve dabbled in floristry.”
But when the talk turned towards which party she might support in the election, she said, “I’m swinging towards Green to be honest,” and one could see she was deeply sincere about this.
Javid nevertheless ventured one of his favourite questions: “Does the economy feel stronger to you over the last five years?”
The woman at this moment received a customer, to whom Javid left her to attend. On other occasions, his question received a positive response, for as he himself said: “Unemployment in Derby North is down 63 per cent – that is such a huge fall that it’s affected a lot of people.”
Derby was decked in St George’s flags, which prompted Javid to send the Department of Culture, Media and Sport a message: “Are you flying the St George’s flag?”
His department replied: “We are not flying it, but will arrange shortly.”
Confirmation arrived that this had been done, and Javid tweeted a picture of the flag. He ended many of his conversations on the doorstep with the words: “Thank you for your support. Happy St George’s Day.”
In these marginal seats, the question of how to get uncertain, but potentially favourable, voters to back the Conservatives, is of decisive importance. Javid sets out to do it by a kind of lucid insistence on the strength of the Tory case. He asks people what evidence they can see of economic revival, and then says: “That’s right, our economy is generating jobs at a record rate.” The case for continuing with Conservative policies flows naturally from this.
Mills said: “It seems much more positive on the doorstep than the polls would have us believe. I’m aware we could be deluding ourselves.” For him, the campaign is in some respects much easier than it was five years ago. Most people in the constituency now know who he is, and he is no longer having to earn his living as a chartered accountant.
If one is at the heart of a campaign, one can feel strangely cut off, for one lacks the leisure to stand back and get a balanced overall picture. As Miles Pattison, who is running Solloway’s campaign in Derby North, put it: “You don’t really have time to work out how things are going. You just keep on with your own campaign.”
Javid went to see the Silk Mill in Derby: one of the sites where in 1721 the industrial revolution began, by using water power to drive huge spinning machines. He took a close interest in the beautiful machines which are there displayed, including several Rolls-Royce aero engines, and said that after the election he would bring his children (aged six, 11, 13 and 15) to see them.
Surveying the spacious and fairly empty room by which one enters the museum, Javid observed: “It’s a great place to hold a function for the Workers’ Party.” A momentary pause, after which he added: “That’s us.” His approach was shot through with a sort of self-mocking humour which saved him from sounding too ideological.
One of Javid’s big responsibilities, at DCMS, is broadband, and he went to see Zycomm, a small business at Ripley, one of the main towns in Amber Valley, which provides broadband and radio services. Here Javid seemed on top of all the stuff about gigabytes, but I confess I was not paying close attention, until Zycomm’s founder, Ian Sneap, made a good-natured joke about computer games which Mills “was spotted playing in the House of Commons”.
Mills sprang to wider attention when he was spotted playing Candy Crush Saga during a session of the Work and Pensions Committee. Although this gave rise at the time to a certain amount of adverse comment, I am inclined to see it as a sign that Mills can recognise a wretchedly tedious session, and may even be a member of the human race.
Javid is so new to high-level politics that he is still pleasantly surprised when members of the public recognise him. On the evidence of this outing, he is good with people on the doorstep, and fully alive to the point that the pursuit of people’s votes, though a deeply serious matter, is also a highly comic one.