On a bitter-cold, snowy evening in December 1946, a ten-tonne Scottish Airways Dakota DC-3 passenger plane took off from Northolt Airport in north-west London on a flight to Glasgow. The wings had iced up on the runway and it failed to gain height. Minutes later it crashed on to the roof of a suburban semi in Angus Drive, South Ruislip.
This story does not end the way you expect. The plane came to a halt; the roof did not collapse; no one was hurt; not a pane of glass broken. A baby in the adjoining house slept through the whole thing. The four-strong crew and the only passenger crazy enough to fly on such a night climbed down through the loft, jumped on to the intended marital bed of a couple whose nuptials were due that weekend, and walked out the front door. Truly, miracles can happen, even in the blandest suburb.
Miracles, however, tend not to happen if you try to will them in advance. It’s usually best to stick to the probabilities. Opposition activists are dreaming of a Christmas miracle in the constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip. A Tory majority of just 100, 200? They could cope with that for the sheer schadenfreude of decapitating the enemy ringleader. Half the country would be too busy laughing to notice anything else. And a good many people have convinced themselves it can happen, and that Boris Johnson can lose his 5,034 majority.
Some of them gathered at 11am on Sunday 3 November, over the road from Hillingdon Hospital, a hideous and increasingly contentious institution, so decrepit it faces being knocked down. They came from across west London, from Ealing, Kensington, Westminster, Hammersmith… And beyond: Hampton, Epsom, Brighton, even Leicestershire. All there to knock on doors in support of Johnson’s Labour opponent, Ali Milani.
“Don’t you have any marginals in Leicestershire?”I asked.
“Not really,” the young man replied. There was even a Green candidate from the Home Counties, who was making perhaps the earliest concession statement of the election. And a whole gang in People’s Vote T-shirts.
This is not the normal experience of canvassing (“Doreen’s got yoga tonight so it’s just the two of us”) though for a while one constituency was wholly unrepresented: Uxbridge itself.
Milani greeted them all warmly. He is only 25, born in Iran, in London since he was five. He’s got a degree from Uxbridge’s university, Brunel, and operational scars from Hillingdon Hospital. He positions himself as the local candidate. He’s a very Londonish type: chirpy and personable; he’s also well briefed, with a flair for the game. However, he did not meet many voters that morning. He was too busy organising the volunteers – almost a hundred in the end, most of them virgins. The newbies had to be paired up with the handful of oldies. It took an hour of precious door-knocking time.
One of the old hands had to give an impromptu lecture on Canvassing for Beginners. “If they get angry, don’t have too long a conversation… Don’t stay on your own… Don’t get lost… I tend to avoid a barking dog. One of us got bitten, you know.” I couldn’t resist intervening to say that it might be unwise to write off the dog-owners’ vote. “Yes, maybe that’s right,” he replied. “But I’d definitely do a strategic risk assessment first.”
I told Milani I had never seen anything like these numbers. “Oh, this is nothing,” he said. “We had 150 in the summer and hope to get the same again on Tuesday. And we’ll be out there two or three times a day, six days a week.”
This is an amorphous, heterogeneous constituency in an amorphous part of London. Uxbridge and South Ruislip is one of three seats in the sprawling borough of Hillingdon, on the capital’s western edge. To the north it is solid Tory; to the south – John McDonnell’s seat of Hayes and Harlington – it is solid Labour. Uxbridge is in the middle, geographically and politically. But there is no balance of power. Hillingdon Council has been Tory-led for 20 years, Johnson’s slice of it has had a Tory MP for 50 and the wards in his constituency currently have no non-Tory councillors at all.
On the local government map, Hillingdon looks like an Easter Island statue, long and thin but with its mouth open as if about to devour a chunk of Ealing. In 2016 this was London’s fourth most Brexity borough: 56 per cent Leave. Councillor Ray Puddifoot, its long-serving leader, is very keen to hymn the joys of the place: stable finances (he’s an accountant), weekly rubbish collections, no library closures, well-kept parks – all the things we used to take for granted from local government. Labour says the Tory bits get the best of everything, including three times the money for roads.
Before Hillingdon gobbled it, Uxbridge was a place of some substance, a borough in its own right. And it’s not without its charming corners even now. But it was severed from the national railway network in 1962, even before the Beeching Report. Now its Tube station is the end of both of the Metropolitan Line (the slow branch) and the Piccadilly (even slower) so, while the trains are frequent, it’s an hour to the City or the West End. You might as well live in Swindon.
It is not easy to drive around either. Or at any rate it is not easy to stop driving. In the residential areas, the parking bays are largely reserved for residents except between the hours of 10pm and 9am. This is a new one on me. Difficult to park to have dinner with a friend – but if you skip the preliminaries and just turn up for bed, it’s fine. The Conservative Party used to worry about the nation’s manners and morality.
Across the River Colne lies staid old Buckinghamshire, but Uxbridge feels in many ways more like Essex. “There are a lot of aspirational people who have done well and think they have to vote Tory. Many of them are Thatcher’s children,” says Peter Curling, the Labour leader on the council. One way and another, this does not feel a natural fit for Milani. He describes himself firmly as “left” and has had to repent a history of anti-Semitic tweets.
But the seat is also very mixed – posh and unposh streets jumbled up, with every demographic represented, though the area is a bit short on Caribbean migrants and intellectual lefties (Brunel academics tend to commute). “I don’t know how there can be any kind of coherent campaign in a place like this,” says Stuart Fox, a lecturer in politics at Brunel. “The values of one group of voters could be dramatically different from the voters of another group very close by. I’ve seen this elsewhere and politicians sometimes have a nightmare.”
One incomer from inner London made Curling’s point more robustly: “There’s a large, aggressively white working class. A lot of Lycra and tattoos. But we couldn’t believe how cheap the property was. And even though we’re so close to the airport, there’s hardly any noise. The runways don’t come this way and the stacking doesn’t affect us. It’s like being in the eye of a hurricane.”
I mentioned the eerie quiet to Milani. “It’s true,”he said. “But I have to tell you you’re now breathing some of the most polluted air in western Europe.” Heathrow expansion could wreck the peace. This issue plays both ways, since the airport is a huge employer. But still, most voters do not work there and are anti-expansion. Johnson’s promise to lie down in front of the bulldozers, before skipping the crucial vote in June last year, was often mentioned as a sign of his perfidy. It is not his only problem.
“Educated idiot”: Boris Johnson after winning Uxbridge and South Ruislip at the 2015 election. Credit: Ben Cawthra/ SIPA USA/ PA Images
Every prime minister from Harold Wilson to Theresa May represented the same area (with the odd boundary change) throughout their Commons career. If their seat was not safe at first, they made it so. In their obscure years, they spent much time turning up to events and meeting their voters. As they rose to stardom, the locals felt a sense of reflected glory, perhaps with a picture on the wall to impress their visitors. John Major in Huntingdon, Tony Blair in Sedgefield, Gordon Brown in Fife, David Cameron in Witney – they all had years of credit in the bank with their constituency base.
But this is different. Johnson was MP for Henley from 2001 to 2008, left parliament to be mayor of London and was parachuted in here four years ago when he was already far too famous to be much bothered with the mundanities of Uxbridge life.
In Vine Street, in the town centre, there is a building site due to become a block of flats. “An iconic landmark,” says the sign. “Sensitively reimagined.” The landmark was Randalls, a furniture shop dating back to 1891, rebuilt in art deco style in the 1930s, and closed in 2015. The fourth-generation owner who had to take that decision, John Randall, said it was “like a bereavement”. As well as the obvious reasons for closure – online competition, pressure on margins – he specifically mentioned the issue of rival firms using zero-hours contracts, which he thought was outrageous. Randall was at the time Uxbridge’s Conservative MP, well known and well liked. He is now a peer.
Puddifoot insists that Johnson has strengths that transcend having local roots. “When he’s in the town centre you can see how popular he is with so many people, from the youngsters to the older generation.” And it is true that one of Johnson’s strengths when he twice beat Ken Livingstone to the mayoralty was the attention he paid to the outer boroughs.
But as Johnson (or his researcher) will know – having dashed off a Churchill biography – this is not a reliable guide: in the 1945 election, Churchill was greeted with huge, adoring crowds – and was routed by unglamorous Clement Attlee. And Churchill had led the whole nation to victory, not 52 per cent of it. In Johnson’s absence from the area, which is inevitably near-total, dissatisfaction festers: there is no storehouse of painstakingly-built, locally generated goodwill. He’s just a celebrity. Rumours of him trying to find somewhere safer do not help.
I vox-popped his constituents on the Metropolitan line from Uxbridge in the morning rush hour and later in South Ruislip. The responses ranged from nuanced support (“He’s a bit of a buffoon but he’s my man”) to outright condemnation: “Untrustworthy”, “Clown”, “Charlatan”.
“He came along to speak to the South Ruislip residents’ association a while back,” said a man raking the leaves near Angus Drive. “We wanted to talk to him about pollution, traffic and crime. He just wanted to tell us about why he had resigned as foreign secretary. There’s nothing worse than an educated idiot.”
“I’ve voted Conservative all my life,” said another. “But I’m a Remainer and I’m ABB – Anyone But Boris. I just don’t trust the man and several of my neighbours have been saying the same.”
There are some signs that the Tories are hearing this message too and edging towards paranoia. But who will get these votes? The putative defectors mostly don’t know themselves. The Lib Dems plausibly claimed to be gaining votes from both main parties. But they start from a base vote of under 4 per cent so their situation was pretty hopeless even before their original candidate, Liz Evenden-Kenyon, withdrew this week due to family illness. A replacement, Jo Humphries, has been hurriedly slotted in but may be less energetic. There is a potential pattern here, which may apply in many Conservative-Labour marginals: the Corbyn factor deters disillusioned Tory Remainers, unsqueezing the Lib Dem vote and keeping, or turning, the seat Tory. Untactical voting.
Outside by-elections a concerted decapitation strategy – of the kind that ended Chris Patten’s Commons career in Bath on an otherwise triumphant Tory night in 1992 – is very hard to execute. It has most chance with a centrist challenger and a homogeneous constituency.
In theory, Milani, a recent-vintage student activist at Brunel, is well placed to rally the student vote (McDonnell is also an old boy). But Justin Fisher, professor of politics there, is sceptical. “The mistake people often make is to think that students are going to fall behind one party. Brunel has always had a very strong Conservative society. We’ve had a Ukip society. One of the healthy things about our university is that there’s more political plurality here than in other places. It’s partly because of the disciplines we offer, but it’s true in the politics department too.”
The Johnson haters’ voices do ring in my ears. Maybe something strange is happening here. Something that would resound forever in the memory of non-Tory Britain. The Portillo moment of 1997 gone nuclear.
But let us try to be realistic. Where did those zestful Labour canvassers come from? Kensington (hyper-marginal). Westminster (could be winnable). Hampton (in Twickenham – possible Conservative gain from the Lib Dems). And Leicestershire. Well, Loughborough has backed the winner of each election for the last 45 years. It is highly unlikely there will be a Labour government without it.
One can see the attraction of assisting a miracle – the glamour of collecting the ultimate scalp. But it might be more environmentally friendly, and politically sound, if the enthusiasts fought their own corners.
About that plane, by the way. The roof did fall in – much later , when a crane tried to remove the wreckage. Those there to help did the most damage.
Matthew Engel is a New Statesman contributing writer