A man plays the accordion while shoppers pace through the central thoroughfare of Uxbridge centre.
It’s an ordinary day in the suburban northwest London town – except it’s crawling with journalists, and the local MP is about to become Prime Minister.
Boris Johnson has represented Uxbridge & South Ruislip since 2015. With Labour areas concentrated in the south, nearer the border with shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s patch of Hayes & Harlington, it’s traditionally been an outer London Tory enclave.
Uxbridge is a town to the west of the constituency. The Metropolitan line, London’s oldest Tube line, terminates here, at the Grade II listed Underground station. It’s an art deco-style slice of the 1930s since sandwiched between two giant shopping centres.
The stained glass windows and columns of the station and the picturesque St Margaret’s Church opposite – perched at the top of a winding road of independent shops – gives a residual hint of Metroland: London suburbia that bubbled up around the railway over a hundred years ago.
Before Johnson was the thoroughly local John Randall, now a Tory peer, who held the seat where his Victorian great-grandfather founded a department store, and that houses his beloved Uxbridge Football Club, since 1997.
In 2017, Johnson’s majority more than halved to 5,034. He is now the prime minister with the lowest local majority since 1924, when Labour PM Ramsay MacDonald held Aberavon by 2,100 votes.
The Tory think tank Onward identified Uxbridge & South Ruislip as a “vulnerable” seat in an April report because of the young to old ratio tipping ever further from the Conservatives’ favour.
Now in Tory/Labour marginal territory, it’s a target seat for London Labour. Johnson’s Labour rival in the seat, a 25-year-old called Ali Milani (who I’ve interviewed in this week’s issue of the New Statesman), shows me the latest polling on his phone.
It’s a national ComRes poll from May extrapolated to show the Tories coming third in the seat, behind the Brexit Party.
This isn’t a reliable way of polling individual seats, and a lot has changed since then. Even Milani, who is “confident” he’ll win the seat he’s been campaigning for since becoming the candidate last September, admits some scepticism.
“I take all polling these days with an ‘okay’,” he says. “My gut will tell me better what’s going on in the constituency. That will have shifted a little bit since then.”
His gut tells him Labour has a good chance of winning if it continues canvassing on local issues as well as making it about the man himself.
There was more optimism in the party’s campaign machine six months ago, at the beginning of the year, before Theresa May announced her imminent departure and Johnson became the favourite.
Now that he’s been elected, the challenge for Labour will be the money and energy the Tories will most likely pump into the seat to keep their leader safe. And with a Brexiteer like Johnson at the helm, Labour cannot rely on the Brexit Party to split the right-wing vote here, in the borough of Hillingdon that voted narrowly to Leave.
What Labour has over the Conservatives in manpower (Momentum can turn out “Unseat” rallies of hundreds here at short notice), it perhaps lacks in resources. Local Labour leaflets still bear the party’s old Brexit policy, for example.
Confidence surrounding the seat in the party has therefore dropped slightly, but as shadow cabinet ministers continue to attend rallies there, media excitement grows.
Labour believes its main hope is in running a truly local campaign – on housing shortages, Heathrow expansion, HS2, and Hillingdon Hospital, which has one of the worst-performing A&E departments in the country.
Plus, Johnson’s fame, which even Labour voices admit is an obstacle, may not necessarily intensify now he’s Prime Minister. This level of seniority usually gives MPs a local bump – but Johnson’s name recognition was already high before reaching No 10. He may have already maxed out the “celebrity effect”.
I don’t hear much enthusiasm for Johnson out and about.
“People perceive him as someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing – I think it’s a front, and he knows what he’s doing,” says Rob Try, a 38-year-old who works at a holiday company in central Uxbridge.
“He’s been braced for this job, waiting for the right time he can get into power,” he says. “ I haven’t seen a major impact on the area with him as MP for Uxbridge.”
Try, who is sitting in the sun on his lunchbreak, says he’s always “followed the Tories” and backed “staying in the EU”, accusing the Leave campaign that Johnson fronted of “lying” – referring to the promise of £350m for the NHS on the side of the battle bus – and arguing that the referendum “should never have happened”.
“Time will tell” whether he will back Johnson, as he’s looking for “movement” on both Brexit and HS2 – the high-speed rail infrastructure project will heavily impact the area.
“Anything outside of Labour or Tory is a wasted vote, which puts you off voting for somebody else,” he says. “I’d like to have another option.”
A pensioner, who wishes to be referred to as Mr C Jeal, 77, who has lived in Uxbridge seven years, is similarly downbeat. “Ahh, my old friend Boris,” he sighs, while studying fresh fruit at a market stall. “I always voted for him but of late I don’t quite like the way he’s going. I don’t think he’s clear on where he wants to go [on Brexit]. If there was a vote tomorrow, I don’t know who I’d vote for.”
Having voted to Leave because of “immigration” in the area (“I mustn’t say it here – just look around!” he whispers, gesturing to the diverse crowd of shoppers), he still believes Jeremy Hunt is “more directed” and would have been “a better prime minister”.
He also worries that Johnson is too “public school” and out of touch.
Uxbridge & South Ruislip’s population is changing, with “more young families, more young people,” says Milani, who sees Labour’s opportunity in energising these new voters, and offering something fresh to the “disaffected traditional voter base” who I’ve heard from out and about.
There are the students of Brunel University, too.
“I haven’t ever voted for him and I think being prime minister, we’ll just see even less of him here – I’ve only seen him a couple of times in three years,” says a 27-year-old graduate in game design from Brunel who’d rather not be named.
“I’m not a fan – I don’t agree with most Conservative policies, and his record isn’t a fantastic one – as mayor, the racist things he said while foreign secretary. I just think he’ll be just as bad [as PM].”
A Sikh shopkeeper who has run Raj’s Off Licence in Uxbridge for five years is more optimistic, however. “It’s good that he’ll be prime minister, because he’ll be able to do more good here,” he says. He argues that “he has the knowledge [of government]” and can use it for the local people. “He’s a good MP, he’s always around these streets.”
Whether Boris Johnson can rely on the support of local business if he pursues a no deal Brexit is another question – one of many in an area his Labour rival brands “a battleground for the future of British politics”.