David Cameron knew the by-election in Norwich North on Thursday 23 July was important. Winning there would back up the Conservatives’ double-digit poll leads and confirm that his leadership had made an impact outside London and the Home Counties and in a Labour-held seat. A three-line whip was issued to Tory MPs that they should visit the constituency three times. Cameron himself was scheduled to have made six visits to Norwich, including polling day itself.
For all the support from Cameron, the Conservative candidate, Chloe Smith, had a hard job. Ian Gibson, the Labour MP who stepped down after 12 years, after being implicated in the expenses scandal, was well liked in the city, and on the doorstep the constituents were angry about the abuse of the allowance system by all MPs.
Smith looks like she was drawn by the illustrator Eileen Soper, straight out of an Enid Blyton book. She has short, no-nonsense, glossy hair. She’s pretty, Pears soap-clean, and if all fails she could present Blue Peter without a whiff of a drugs scandal. She plays badminton and likes E M Forster.
Although this contest lacked the buzz of previous by-elections, there were a couple of comedy basics: the first being that the
Lib Dem candidate April Pond has a moat, and the second that the Ukip candidate was called Mr Tingle.
Theresa May and Eric Pickles were in charge of the Norwich campaign for the Tories. Pickles was also the on-the-ground general of the triumphant Crewe by-election on 22 May. Everyone loves Pickles. “When is Pickles turning up?” say irritable sandwich-makers. “Ten minutes until Pickles arrives,” says someone on a mobile. The biscuit plates are made to look busier by the addition of some Bourbons and half a packet of Jaffa Cakes in his honour.
In the war room, the upstairs space of a church that has a comforting smell of carbolic soap and Victoria sponge sandwich, Pickles has a slice of cake and sips black tea. He is pleased that, unlike in Crewe, where Labour went down the fated class-war route, they have not veered there yet. Just as he says this, a small nine-year-old boy walks in holding the latest Labour flyer above his head. It has a picture of a fox cub and the accompanying line, “Vote Labour or the fox gets it” – a nod to the Tories and fox-hunting. “Ahhh, a late entry for the class war,” bellows Pickles. “These folks are one-trick ponies. How desperate.”
From this campaign, a new Tory take on mail-drops has emerged that has created interest and envy from other candidates. Imagine the glossy lifestyle pamphlet you might be given for a new riverside development or the opening of a gym or the pictures in the Lakeland catalogue. It is called People Talk and features interviews with Smith and Cameron, and other, more specific details such as Smith’s star sign (Taurus: stable, loyal, though unspontaneous).
For all the photo-packed literature, Pickles is adamant that his campaigning style “is the old-fashioned, elegant way to get the vote out”. Many of those canvassing have been phoned personally by Pickles and asked to get involved. Not one to miss a trick, he has gently requested some footwork from those hopeful for one of the growing number of seats that will inevitably come up before the election.
Pickles’s conversation is peppered with popular cultural references. Referring to the Labour Party activists playing dirty tricks with the Green Party, he says: “It’s like that film . . . what is it? . . . Die Hard, you know the line, ‘This time it’s personal.'” I think he may have meant Jaws, but that’s not important right now. “This time it’s personal,” he mumbles to himself again, banking it for further use.
A few minutes pass and he’s moved on to James Blunt. “You know that James Blunt song: ‘In a club with you back in 1973’. Listen to the chorus. With Brown it would be, ‘In a committee room back in 1992 . . .'”
Addressing a room full of adoring helpers, Pickles says, “Does anyone know the Harry Enfield show?”
“Well, watching Brown this week, refusing to listen to anyone, I was reminded of Kevin the Teenager.”
The weekend before the by-election, more than 400 Conservative activists, candidates and MPs swarmed this patch of East Anglia. Some came from Cornwall, Manchester and Glasgow; I’m told there were two over from Holland. I ask Pickles what he said to seduce a couple of Dutchmen to travel 450 miles to Norwich. “They just wanted to help,” he says, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
It has been an exhausting few weeks. To keep the interest up, Chloe Smith found herself wandering around Asda with William Hague and, on another occasion, in the Mecca Bingo hall with Cameron. She held “Politics in the Pub” sessions perched on a bar stool and wrote a slightly twee blog.
She even had her very own fat lefty stalker, paramount for any girl on the cusp of fame, as she surely is.
Tara Hamilton-Miller has been a consultant to the Conservative Party