On the stump with Tim Yeo
Political Editor Graham Dines hits the campaign trail with Conservative frontbencher Tim Yeo4.40am A reminder call from British Telecom. In a moment of weakness, I've agreed to do a campaign swing with Tim Yeo, Suffolk South's Conservative MP since 1983, a candidate again this time, and his party's spokesman on environment and transportAs one of the Shadow Cabinet, he's expected to take a leading role in taking the Tory message to the voters and to gee up party activists up and down the country.
Political Editor Graham Dines hits the campaign trail with Conservative frontbencher Tim Yeo
4.40am A reminder call from British Telecom. In a moment of weakness, I've agreed to do a campaign swing with Tim Yeo, Suffolk South's Conservative MP since 1983, a candidate again this time, and his party's spokesman on environment and transport
As one of the Shadow Cabinet, he's expected to take a leading role in taking the Tory message to the voters and to gee up party activists up and down the country. Thus today he was heading for five constituencies in Kent, and I'm accompanying him.
5.23am After a complex purchase of single tickets from Ipswich to Liverpool Street, and Canon Street to Dartford, an underground gate pass and a first class upgrade on the return leg from London to Suffolk, I find myself on the first train out of Ipswich. Unbelievably, it is timetabled to do the journey in 98 minutes, slower than in the days of steam and the InterCity liveried carriage is indeed a relic of British Rail.
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7.31am From Cannon Street to Dartford (Labour majority 3,306, swing required 3.7%).
8.30am Outside Dartford station, I find hectic political activity with Tory hopeful Gareth Johnson, Tim Yeo – accompanied by his policy adviser Rebecca – and a band of followers handing out leaflets and glad-handing unsuspecting commuters. Some station jobsworth tries to move us on, but higher authority says no.
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Mr Yeo is here to reinforce the message that the rail network cannot cope with the thousands of extra passengers which would follow the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's Thames Gateway affordable housing plans, especially as services to both Cannon Street and Charing Cross are about to be reduced.
9.10am It's off to the Medway towns, and to the Labour marginals of Medway, Gillingham, and Chatham & Aylesford. It takes an hour in a Central Office leased car, during which time Tim Yeo talks by mobile phone to local journalists unable to make the Dartford visit and issues instructions to staff back in London on speeches and the issues of the day. A text message arrives from a mystery caller: "Give Oliver Letwin a greater role in the campaign, talking about the economy." From friend or foe is never discovered.
10.30am After crossing the Medway, we arrive at Chatham's historic dockyard to see urban regeneration and hear about transport and planning iniquities proposed by John Prescott. Then to an airfield which the Labour Party wants to flog off for housing – shades of Ipswich Airport – rather than use it for high quality employment opportunities.
One local resident vents his fury: "More than 50% of Medway Towns residents commute to London for work. The road network here can't cope with extra homes – why not build them in the north of England, why do we have to have them."
A sympathetic ear, some words of encouragement to Chatham &Aylesford Tory candidate Anne Jobson (Labour majority 4,340, swing required 5.5%) and then its on the road again. A national journalist calls about the Tory policy on speed cameras on the M4. Mr Yeo tells him: "Most motorways are the safest roads in Britain. It's just another Government money making scheme. We want to raise motorway speed limits to 80mph, but support 20mph limits outside schools."
12.10pm A welcome pint of Stella Artois in a hotel on Dover seafront, and then we join a team of canvassers on a social housing estate on the White Cliffs. Stereotypically, there'ss old furniture and broken down televisions dumped in unkemped gardens, but we can't find anyone who tells us to bog off. Nobody is going to vote Labour either.
1pm A meeting with road hauliers in the Ramada Hotel on the outskirts of Dover to listen to complaints about the price of diesel – we learn it's 18p a litre cheaper in Belgium – and the unfair manner in which truckers are treated by the British government, giving Continental competitors the edge.
3pm After a sandwich, it's up the A2 and M2 – fielding a call from a Sunday newspaper which wants to join the next day's tour – cross through the Dartford Tunnel and up the A12 to Colchester station where I'm dropped – no need for that first class upgrade because the itinerary was changed at the last minute – before the driver heads to East Bergholt and Tim Yeo's house. After a few hours workt, he's off to Norwich and two television broadcasts.
The next day, the circus starts again – flying early morning to Newcastle, helicopter to Berwick-on-Tweed, and then back to Great Yarmouth. Another day in the life of a frontbencher.
Does he get a buzz out of such a hectic schedule? "Of course I do. It gives me the opportunity to meet candidates and volunteer workers in our target seats, the seats we have to win, and hopefully boost the profile of candidates in the media.
"Local journalists will usually turn out to interview and photograph Shadow Cabinet members and this gives candidates exposure in the newspapers. It gets our message across and the candidate gets his face in the newspaper."
In all five seats, the weekly papers duly obliged making the publicity value of the tour incalculable.
"I believe we have a genuine chance in all these seats," says Mr Yeo. "Labour's vote is flaky" – all five candidates report this – "and we are not getting the derisory treatment from the voters we did in 1997 and 2001.
"I did tours four years ago and was tearing my hair out – our message was just been laughed out of court up and down the country. This time it's Labour's vote that's up for grabs – the polls show that among people definitely going to vote, we're neck and neck. It's all to play for."
Front bench spokesmen like Tim Yeo depend on volunteer workers in their constituencies to get the vote out. Suffolk South is no exception. "I'm in the division five days a week, I'm canvassing hard, but all three parties have to have front bench people out on the road. Any opponent who tries to make political capital out of that really is campaigning in the gutter."
OTHER candidates standing in Suffolk South: James Carver (UKIP), Kevin Craig (Labour), Kathy Pollard (Lib Dem). Tim Yeo's majority is 5,081.
AND RETURNING TO SUFFOLK AND ESSEX . . .
SUFFOLK West Conservative candidate Richard Spring asked a voter in a Haverhill pub car park if he could count on his support. "No! you're all the same – I'm not voting," came back the reply. "In any case, I'm emigrating to Australia in six months' time to get away from all these f…ing immigrants."
Later, Mr Spring was pounced on by Mildenhall Stadium's seven foot tall Hartley Hare, who was supporting Independent candidate Stephen Gunn's campaign to get elected to Suffolk County Council.
"BEING called a `playboy politician' by Peter Hain is like being told to sit up straight by the hunchback of Notre Dame" – Respect Party leader George Galloway responding to the Commons Leader's attack in the Bethnal Green & Bow constituency yesterday.
IN Braintree, Tory Brooks Newmark – aiming to overturn a Labour majority of just 358 – has produced some tea mugs for party volunteers and journalists with the slogan "Brooks Newmark, A Strong Voice." He's also issued an audio tape of his manifesto to help blind and partially sighted voters.
AS Labour luvvies line up to back again Tony Blair – Maureen Lipman, Timothy West and his wife Prunella Scales, husband and wife sofa team Richard and Judy, celebrity chef and Norwich City director Delia Smith, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson and morning chat show host Lorraine Kelly to name but a few – the party is not having it all its own way. "I think it's a very good year for abstention," says actor Stephen Fry, normally a Labour supporter.
DANNY Kruger, who famously withdrew as the Tory candidate in Sedgefield, the Prime Minister's constituency, for saying that the Conservatives would introduce a period of creative destruction of public services, has spilled in Essex.
Out canvassing in marginal Harlow on behalf of Tory candidate Robert Halfon, he found every house had a dog – "mostly they are large and stupid and bark as you approach." Distracted by children playing, he did not pay attention to "the dark shadow through the frosted glass in the door." Within seconds "my finger was held in a ferocious grip – I pulled it out yelling, bleeding, hurting like hell" he tells the Spectator magazine election website.
Kruger had the wound treated at a nearby house before declaring: "That's enough of Harlow."