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12 December 2019updated 24 Jul 2021 3:59am

“He’s very Marmite”: Boris Johnson’s predecessor on whether he could lose in Uxbridge

By Anoosh Chakelian

“I’ll tell you something, I’m not voting for Boris Johnson.”

This is John Randall’s favourite thing to tell journalists at the moment. The Tory peer and former Uxbridge and South Ruislip MP won’t be voting for his successor in his northwest London hometown because he can’t – members of the House of Lords can’t vote in general elections.

“That’s how I normally wind up journalists – they go, ‘ooh, what? Story!’” he laughs, over a flat white at a cafe on the high street winding round from Uxbridge Tube station.

A big beardy fellow with large glasses and a near-constant knowing smile, the man called “Uxbridge Walrus” on Twitter is in a playful mood. The Twitter handle, by the way, is because he wanted an animal (his son – a Saracens fan – was “Uxbridge Wolf”), likes seafood (“but I think the word is ‘bottom feeder’, but I rather identify!”), and didn’t want a “boring” MP handle, “going around saying pothole – saved!”

He’s recently returned from birdwatching in Botswana and Namibia, and wears a tie patterned with macaws.

For those still tantalised, he would actually vote for Johnson if he could. Although his politics aren’t exactly aligned with the current brand of Tory dominating the party. He backed Remain and was “bitterly disappointed” by the EU referendum result, and his environmental and local interests make him a campaigner against the expansion of Heathrow airport and HS2 – both infrastructure projects that would affect the constituency.

While the latter is under review, the former has been given the go-ahead – despite Johnson’s promise to his constituency that he would “lie down in front of bulldozers” to stop a third runway.

Uxbridge and South Ruislip strayed into Tory/Labour marginal territory at the 2017 election, when Johnson’s majority more than halved to 5,034. Now, the traditionally Tory outer-London enclave is a Labour target, which the conservative think tank Onward classed as “vulnerable” in April. Johnson has the smallest constituency majority of any prime minister since 1924.

At the New Statesman, we’ve shadowed Labour canvassers in the area, asked voters what they think of their MP becoming Prime Minister and whether they’ll vote for him in this election, and interviewed the Labour candidate running against him, Ali Milani.

It looks like the fight will probably be too tough for Labour here: YouGov’s respected MRP polling model gives Milani between 32 and 48 per cent, with Johnson ahead on 41-57 per cent of the vote.

But who better to ask than Randall? He is a proper local – an Uxbridge Football Club supporter who was the last owner of his Victorian great-grandfather’s department store, Randalls, before he had to close it in 2015. At the time, he blamed “brutal” retail working conditions and other employers using zero-hours contracts.

Randall admits the first question he gets from “a lot of my former colleagues” – and “a couple who are standing again” – is “is Boris going to be all right?”

“Some of them are asking for different reasons,” he grins.

He also points out how the Prime Minister divides public opinion. “Boris is very Marmite, so you’ll find people saying ‘oh I wouldn’t vote for him’, and they might not even be from round here but they hate him, other people love him. On the night, we’ll see who has more.”

Randall even reveals he’s been warning the Prime Minister directly about constituents’ concerns over HS2. “I’ve been speaking to Boris Johnson and I’ve been speaking to [Transport Secretary] Grant Shapps about how much a proportion of the constituency care about HS2,” he tells me.

What kind of thing has he been telling him? “I think a lot of your people who vote for you, or potentially vote for you, will be against it. A lot of Conservatives are against it wherever they live, actually a lot of people are.”

Indeed, you can trace the rhetorical dilution of their support for the project over the course of this election campaign. “I’m not 100 per cent behind it, because the costs are very high,” Johnson told a BBC 5 Live phone-in in mid-November.

“You have to look at the size of the bill. It’s huge,” he told reporters on a campaign visit to north Yorkshire later that month. “You have to consider the thick end of £100bn is being properly spent and whether we are profiling that spend correctly.”

Nevertheless, he also expressed support for big infrastructure projects and referred to the scheme’s “great national importance”.

Although the demographics of Uxbridge are changing, as in other outer London boroughs, to become younger and more diverse, “there’s a certain status quo feel about the place”, says Randall.

He believes that Johnson is “actually very popular” in parts of the constituency “one might have considered in the past to be Labour voter, working-class places”, and the rhetoric of class politics doesn’t work in such places.

“Where he’s least popular, or less popular, is in the sort of – well, Uxbridge doesn’t really have leafy drives, a few bits, but actually the people I would’ve known, a bit further up, there’s Uxbridge Common, very nice houses, they were probably Remain, who knows?” he says. “But they probably don’t like his style, probably don’t approve of his certain morrows, shall we say. But that doesn’t make a blind bit of a difference down the road.”

Randall acknowledges there will be “Conservative switchers who will say ‘I’ll never vote Conservative again’ over Brexit, particularly”, but they may not automatically switch parties. “I don’t know where they’re going to go; I think they may sit at home.”

Yet this could be balanced by “a lot of people fed up with Brexit, bored stiff” who are seduced by the Conservative Party’s message.

Torn between their historic county identity of Middlesex and London suburbia, Uxbridge residents are hard to define.

“It’s got a strange feel about it, it’s neither fish nor fowl and you’ve got to know it pretty well. We’ve actually been pretty strong in the past as non-conformist” protestants, he adds, pointing out that Uxbridge has a peace memorial, rather than a war memorial.

“It was a marginal,” he recalls, of the small Tory majority of 724 here in 1997. “So it is potentially a marginal, and will be again.”

As a former deputy chief whip who had to deal with the “Plebgate” affair and expenses scandal, Randall must have views on the recent Tory infighting? The pressure of Brexit rebels and ousting of Remainer MPs have changed the face of his party.

“It’s very easy to be like some old pundit on Sky Sports saying ‘this is what they should have done’. I can see things that I would’ve advised them to have done differently, I would’ve probably tried to schmooze people a bit more,” he smiles. “I’m sorry to see people who I like and respect and are friends who are no longer in the party and are standing as independents or whatever. I think parliament is losing a lot of good people.”

Still, he tries to keep out of it and avoids taking himself too seriously. “I just like to go out and look at nature. Talk to the birds!” Randall tells me he has a coat of arms bearing the same species of bird three times: a bearded reedling. He grins: “But it is more commonly known as a bearded tit.”

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