Alun Cairns reckons a scandal will blow over in about a week. At least, that is how long the phone line went straight to voicemail in his constituency office.
Cairns resigned as the secretary for Wales two weeks ago because he endorsed a Tory candidate who had “sabotaged” a rape trial. But the MP for the Vale of Glamorgan has not taken his name off the ballot paper. From his base in Barry, he will contest the general election, keeping his head down, refusing interview requests, hoping against hope that the national press will stay away.
“Why he did not resign as a candidate I don’t know,” says Belinda Loveluck-Edwards, the Labour candidate for the Vale of Glamorgan. “I understand, from what I’ve read, that there has not been a sincere apology to the victim. That’s what I think matters to people.”
The Vale of Glamorgan is a bellwether constituency. There have been nine general elections since the seat was formed in 1983. On every occasion, the party that has won the Vale of Glamorgan has gone on to form the government. That is because the seat is terrifically varied. Candidates have to canvass both council estates and stately homes. There is commuter-land, there is farmland, and there is a hell of a lot else in between.
At the Tory end of the spectrum, you have the market town of Cowbridge – the sort of place where red corduroys stroll across the well-kept herb gardens. Confused Liberal Democrats also populate the High Street, unable to vote for their preferred party because the Remain Alliance has imposed a Green candidate upon them. They shop for local cheeses in bewilderment. Mostly, however, the townsfolk are true blue.
“If Cairns ever retires then Prince Andrew can take over,” says Rhys Davies, a retired metallurgist with a dubious sense of humour. “But seriously, Cairns let himself go a bit but he’s pretty hardworking. To be honest I don’t care what he did.”
Throughout the constituency, a shrug of the shoulders is the default Tory reaction. Men and women, young and old, know what Cairns did, but their desire to back Boris overrides their disapproval.
“I’ve obviously heard about the stuff in the press but it won’t affect how I’m going to vote,” says Tom Cannington, another Conservative voter in the Tudor town of Llantwit Major. “You get a few bad eggs in all the parties.”
Meanwhile, the forces opposed to the Tories are scattered. They dislike Jeremy Corbyn and they do not know who to vote for. In Llantwit Major alone, I met Labour voters turning out for the Brexit Party, Liberal Democrats supporting the Greens, floating voters supporting the Conservatives, Labour voters siding with the Conservatives and, most commonly of all, Labour voters not voting at all. In the Vale of Glamorgan, a Conservative mass is confronting a larger disunited opposition.
“Not everyone is a natural Labour supporter, I get that, but my job is to show them that I offer integrity and compassion,” says Loveluck-Edwards.
In the referendum, the Vale of Glamorgan lived up to its reputation as a bellwether par excellence, voting 52.5 per cent to leave (compared to 52 across the UK). Given Loveluck-Edwards’ credentials, you might have thought that she would at least be consolidating the 47.5 per cent remain vote.
“I’m a Remainer and I’ve been unequivocal about that. Like the rest of Welsh Labour, I will be campaigning to remain, but it is right that we will be putting a deal on the table.”
Yet in Barry there is confusion over the party’s central message.
“Labour’s stance on Brexit is very unclear,” says Natalia Merrills, who has just finished university and now works part-time in a video game store. “I would not want to vote for someone who’s not clear on Brexit.”
Loveluck-Edwards is a determined, erudite and compassionate candidate. Frontbenchers and local activists alike have come in their droves to support her. The incumbent MP is mired in an ugly controversy that has already cost him his cabinet position, and his majority was slashed to just 2,190 at the last election. Cuts in the Vale have resulted in police officers acting as social carers, and women are being denied access to criminal justice.
“We have seven foodbanks in this area,” says Loveluck-Edwards. “It is 2019 and we are relying on a charity to feed some of our kids.”
Even the demographics of the biggest settlement Barry are changing to benefit Labour – young professionals priced out of Cardiff are setting up their homes on the town’s fashionable Victorian hills. So why on earth isn’t Labour winning comfortably in the Vale of Glamorgan?
“Mr Corbyn makes it a bit of a no contest,” comments Rhys Davies wickedly, pulling on a rolled cigarette in Cowbridge. Judging by the complaints on the doorstep, he is not wrong.