Election campaigns are hard on the candidates’ families. As Jennie Bone, wife of Peter Bone, the Conservative candidate in Wellingborough and Rushden, put it while driving me across this Northamptonshire seat: “The campaign is good, but I’d quite like it to be over tomorrow. We don’t get to see him.”
Mrs Bone runs the constituency office in Wellingborough, but attained wider fame when her husband, who first won here in 2005, started mentioning her at Prime Minister’s Questions. He would reveal whether or not Mrs Bone was pleased by David Cameron’s handling of European and other matters.
On one occasion the Prime Minister joked that “a very great part of my life is trying to give pleasure to Mrs Bone”. This sally met, Mrs Bone said, with a mixed response in her family: “The history daughter [one of their children teaches history in a comprehensive school] was disgusted. I thought it was hilarious.”
But she added that the opinions attributed to her are more often the views of constituents which she has been asked to relay to her husband: “When Peter says ‘Mrs Bone wants to know’, sometimes it is me, but usually it is people saying ‘Please tell Peter’.”
When I visited, Mr and Mrs Bone were out campaigning with 30 others including Tom Pursglove, candidate in the neighbouring seat of Corby and East Northamptonshire.
For the two constituencies are co-operating very closely in the campaign: the volunteers assembled after a joint planning meeting held on Saturday morning at Raunds Conservative Club, on the Corby side of the boundary between the two seats, after which people fanned out to campaign.
Mrs Bone drove me to the office in Wellingborough, which is in a former industrial equipment hire shop whose exterior is adorned with the message: “Peter Bone Listening to Wellingborough and Rushden”. I displeased Mrs Bone by expressing my approval of the magnificent shabbiness of the office, where no money has been wasted on fripperies such as redecoration. She pointed out that in winter, it is perishingly cold. Mr Bone said that when he holds surgeries there, it is so cold he has to wrap a quilt round himself.
In 2001, when Mr Bone first fought the Wellingborough seat, he lost by 2,355 votes, but in 2005 he won by the slender majority of 687, which increased to 11,787 in 2010. A number of voters said that because of his reputation as a hard-working MP, and also because he quite often defies the party line at Westminster, he will be re-elected this time.
But Corby is highly marginal. In 2010 Louise Mensch gained it for the Tories by 1,951 votes, but in the by-election held in 2012, caused by her resignation in order to go and live in New York, Labour regained it by 7,791 votes.
For the past two years, Mr Bone has been helping Mr Pursglove to campaign in Corby on the issues of controlled immigration, getting out of the EU superstate, cutting overseas aid and opposing the windfarms which have blighted parts of Northamptonshire. Mr Bone described this as an attempt to “do a Rosindell”: a reference to Andrew Rosindell, who in 2001 gained Romford from Labour after a conspicuously patriotic campaign which included dressing his Staffordshire Bull Terrier in a Union Jack waistcoat.
In nearby Kettering, Philip Hollobone, who first fought that seat in 2001 and gained it for the Conservatives in 2005, is fighting exactly that kind of campaign. A local journalist described Mr Hollobone as “more UKIP than UKIP”, and said the candidate himself seizes any opportunity to wear a Union Jack outfit.
Mr Pursglove, who is 26, belongs firmly to this wing of the party. He became a borough councillor in Wellingborough at the age of 18, has campaigned hard for Mr Bone and has also worked for Chris Heaton-Harris, since 2010 the firmly eurosceptic MP for Daventry, which borders Wellingborough to the west. Over the past two years, Mr Pursglove has knocked on “thousands and thousands of doors” in Corby. He believes he can win back the seat for the Conservatives, and that in a very tight contest, he is ahead by a few hundred votes. It will be fascinating to see whether his confidence is justified.
There is in fact more than one Conservative campaign being waged in this general election. We see here a group of candidates who are campaigning hard on issues to which the party at national level is giving no prominence.
Mr Bone is one of those who refers to 14 November 2014 as “Black Friday”, for that is when Mr Cameron delivered a speech on immigration which failed to satisfy these Northamptonshire Conservatives. “He bottled it,” Mr Bone said. “If he’d capped it, we’d have gone five points up in the polls.”
But Mr Bone says both the Prime Minister and, in particular, George Osborne have been good about visiting Corby. When Boris Johnson visited last November, he was so mobbed as he attempted to leave the town that he had difficulty getting back on the train to London.
Last year, Mr Bone said, Labour voters in Corby were “going over to UKIP at an astounding rate”. He believes the election result in this constituency will depend on whether the Conservatives or Labour are better at getting UKIP voters back: “If we do it better than Labour, we win: if they do it better than us, they win.”
We drove to Corby Conservative Club, where Mr Pursglove’s canvassers were gathering for an afternoon of campaigning in Oakley Vale ward. His battle bus pulled out of the club car park, its loudhailer broadcasting with admirable clarity the message: “Vote Pursglove. Vote Conservative on the 7th of May. Vote Pursglove, the candidate for all of the people, not just some of the people.”
I went with Mr Bone, Mr Pursglove, Helen Harrison, the Conservatives’ prospective parliamentary candidate in Ashfield, and her daughter Miranda Harrison, to canvass in Chatsworth Road: a development of almost new houses. It was very hard to detect from the responses on the doorstep any shift in opinion. “Zilch is happening,” Mr Bone said, which is also the impression given by most of the national polls.
At one house, a black woman answered the door, and described Mr Pursglove as “a nice-looking guy”, judging by his leaflets.
Mr Pursglove was summoned, and inquired in a modest tone: “Do I look as good in real life as in my picture?”
The woman: “Oh my God, you look amazing.”
But she proceeded to make a deeply serious point about her inability to get her eleven-year-old son in to the local school, and the danger that he might have to go to a worse school which is two bus rides away. “I’m from Zimbabwe,” she said. “Education, hard work is really important. I believe in hard work.” Here was the African belief in the over-riding importance of education finding expression in Corby.
Mr Pursglove said that if elected on 7th May, he would certainly take up her case. These unfashionable and at national level unreported Northamptonshire Conservatives are fighting the election with unflagging dedication and energy. Their message (not that any of them put it like that) is that there is no need to vote for UKIP, because that sort of patriotism is alive and well within the Conservative Party.