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View from Dover: from the white cliffs to White Van Man

It is Dover that will be most affected if we leave the European Union without a favourable deal. And 62.2 per cent of people here voted for Brexit.

By Caroline Crampton

As the train approaches Dover Priory station, passengers get a view that would make even the most unpatriotic heart thump. The famous white cliffs loom above the English Channel, still and azure on the sunny May morning when I visit, with the crenellations of Dover castle outlined against the sky. It’s a deeply symbolic view, one that is caught up in a nostalgic kind of national pride. This is the edge of Britain: once the point of invasion, it is now the UK’s gateway to trade with Europe.

Brexit feels more urgent here. It is Dover that will be most affected if we leave the European Union without a favourable deal. Currently, there is no infrastructure to support customs checks on the 2.6 million trucks passing through the Port of Dover each year, or a refugee camp like that at Calais (where the border is located at the moment). Senior transport figures have warned that post-Brexit chaos in Dover could cause gridlock on roads for up to 30 miles.

In 2016, 62.2 per cent people here voted to leave the EU. The parliamentary constituency, which contains Dover itself as well as the neighbouring towns of Deal and Walmer plus smaller rural villages, has traditionally returned a Conservative MP. It has gone to Labour at moments of great national swing, such as in 1945, 1964 and 1997, but switched back to the Tories in 2010. The Ukip vote, too, has been steadily increasing – at the 2005 election the party received just 2.6 per cent of the vote, rising to 3.5 per cent in 2010 and then 20.3 per cent in 2015.

Charlie Elphicke, the Conservative incumbent, took the seat from Labour’s Gwyn Prosser in 2010, and slightly increased his majority to 6,294 in 2015. He has long been on the more Eurosceptic wing of the party, having organised a letter to the Daily Telegraph in 2012, signed by 102 of his fellow MPs, that called for the repatriation of crime and policing powers to Britain from the EU.

Elphicke also served as a government whip from May 2015 to July 2016, and might have been looking towards future promotion up the ministerial ladder, had it not been for the EU referendum. He is now a confirmed May loyalist, although she perhaps hasn’t always treated him kindly: in Rosa Prince’s recent biography of the Prime Minister, Elphicke confirmed that he found out that he had been sacked not from May herself, but in a phone call from her new chief whip, Gavin Williamson.

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When we meet on a street corner in Buckland, Elphicke – a 46-year-old tax lawyer – looks the classic Conservative candidate in his navy blazer, khaki chinos and bright-blue rosette. This is one of the most deprived wards in the district, a traditionally Labour-supporting area in the northern suburbs of Dover. Here, Elphicke is staking much on May’s “strong and stable” national image. He asks everyone whether they would “consider supporting me and Theresa May at the general election”.

“Areas like this are where the future of the nation are decided,” he says as we knock on doors. Ten years ago, a Conservative candidate would have struggled here, but since the rise of Ukip and the Brexit vote, this area has come into play for Elphicke. “Dover is seen as quite a populist town,” he explains. “Ukip did very well here . . . It’s tended to move towards us over time.”

In fact, Elphicke says that the trend of former Ukip voters moving to the Conservatives has been a hallmark of his campaign so far. Some are historically Labour voters who can’t bring themselves to go back. This is borne out on the doorstep, with lots of Leave voters now supporting May. Several houses we pass have Union flags flying. This is classic “white van man” territory.

Nick Philpott, a 52-year-old gas engineer who lives in nearby Crabble Lane, interrupts his work to explain that he is voting Conservative for the first time, having been Labour in his youth. “I like Theresa May. I’ve normally wasted my vote recently – as in Ukip, BNP, that type of thing – but I’m going for her because I want out.” He isn’t impressed by Elphicke, though. “He’s a ninny,” he tells me, once the candidate is out of earshot, “but Theresa May isn’t”.

However, the Conservative manifesto, and in particular the proposed changes to social care and the winter fuel allowance, are causing problems for some. Jean Edgington, a 76-year-old pensioner and lifelong Labour supporter, says she was considering switching to the Tories until she heard about the changes. “May’s going to take our heating allowance from us,” she says. “Our house isn’t worth much, we’ll be lucky if we get £100,000 for it, so if we go into care I won’t have anything left to pass on to my grandchildren or my daughter.”

Some Labour voters in Dover are also struggling with Jeremy Corbyn’s history with the IRA. On 22 September 1989, an IRA bomb killed 11 marines at the barracks in nearby Deal, and many here haven’t forgotten. The tragedy is still commemorated every year. “Corbyn’s a terrorist lover, and I fought in Ireland, so I want nothing to do with him,” 69-year-old retired infantryman Peter Wakefield tells me. “I’ve always voted Labour, even when I was in the army.”

Stacey Blair, the newly selected Labour candidate, is aware that she faces a tough challenge to change minds in such a short campaign. When we meet for a drink at the Premier Inn on Dover’s seafront, she says it has been like “trying to fit five years into five weeks”.

The 29-year-old care worker grew up on a council estate in Dover, and says that this election feels personal. She’s a mother of three children under five, with two older stepchildren. “Everything that the Tories are attacking, I’m living,” she says. “I feel like it needs defending.”

Wages here are stagnant and jobs are difficult to come by, she says. “The average income is £24,000. I know I’m not even scraping near that and I’m working full time. We don’t have a lot of money. We’ve got shops on the high street with grass growing in the inside.”

As we talk, over Blair’s shoulder I can see lorries driving constantly in and out of the port. Without a Brexit deal, “the whole town will come to a standstill”, she says. Her campaign has been dominated by the EU referendum. “The only thing people ever say is ‘I want to make sure we Brexit properly’, but what does that even mean?”

Even after the election, people here will be seeking answers about their future.

You can find the rest of our consituency profiles from the 2017 general election here.

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This article appears in the 31 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning