“I hear it’s sunny in Lichfield,” Michael Fabricant joked, as a storm of unbridled ferocity broke over a group of campaigners for Andy Street, Tory candidate for West Midlands Mayor.
About a dozen people were gathered in the car park between the One Man and His Dog pub and the Co-Op supermarket in Turnberry Road, Bloxwich.
They included Eddie Hughes, who captured Walsall North (which includes Bloxwich) for the Conservatives in 2017; Fabricant, who has represented Lichfield since 1992; and Jahid Choudhury, who is within striking distance of winning a council seat in Aston, where he will be standing again next year.
“Boris Johnson should go to Aston,” Choudhury said, “and say thank you to the loyal supporters.”
He related how he and other Bangladeshis in Aston, an inner-city area, decided in 2017 to back Street, even though the conventional wisdom was that this was a Labour stronghold.
“The Bangladeshi community worked for six months night and day and then we won,” Choudhury said: four years ago, Street was elected Mayor by the slender margin of 3,776 votes.
Will Street win again this time? The latest poll, for The Times Red Box, puts him 17 points ahead of Liam Byrne, the Labour candidate.
Street flatly rejects this poll: “We dismissed that. I don’t believe it.”
He pointed out that at the general election in 2019, the Conservatives gained 725,000 votes in the West Midlands and Labour 723,000, a result which suggests that the mayoral contest ought, as it was in 2017, to be on a knife edge.
“It will all come down to turnout,” Street adds. “Some of the polls could engender complacency.”
He issued an appeal to ConHome readers: “We still need all the help we can get.”
But morale among Street’s campaigners is good. They began, as is the modern way, by taking photographs of each other, to be distributed on social media.
Jay Singh-Sobal, the Tory candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner, conducted a short interview with Street, and Hughes gave a short speech.
It then began to rain, hail and blow with astonishing force. The get-out-the-vote letters which the team was about to distribute were about to be reduced to a pulp.
Street ordered a tactical retreat to the cars until the storm blew over, as it soon did. The candidate then led the way into various new roads and closes which all seemed to be named after golf courses: Troon, Sunningdale, Birkdale.
The gardens here were immaculate. He raced from door to door, posting the letters.
When he missed a turning and ConHome apologised for distracting him by putting a lot of questions, he replied: “No, no, I should be able to do two things at once.”
He related how Theresa May, to whom he gives the credit for initiating measures which have led to a 75 per cent fall in rough sleepers, had been there canvassing the other day.
So had Damian Green, Damian Hinds, Greg Clark and Sajid Javid.
Aware that he had just named some leading members of the last Government, Street proceeded to add some members of the present Government who had come to canvass for him: Robert Jenrick, Grant Shapps, Therese Coffey, Robert Buckland, and Johnson himself.
Fabricant provided light relief by staggering up, as if having a heart attack, while saying, “The last thing we need is a by-election.”
Street sounds more confident, more at ease with the world of politics, than he did when interviewed in February 2017 by ConHome, soon after stepping down as Managing Director of John Lewis and entering the mayoral race.
On that occasion he said of his campaign:
“If we can win here it is a knife thrust in the Labour Party’s heart.”
A second Street victory might prove even more painful to Labour, for it would suggest a more enduring change in allegiance by voters.
On the drive back to Walsall Station, we passed through Birchills, where a vast brownfield site is being prepared for development by first having the ground cleaned.
Street pointed out that the site had lain derelict for decades. By spending public money for it to be cleaned up, he had prompted ten times as much private investment in new housing.
He obtained £450 million from the Treasury to regenerate such sites in Birmingham, and thereby avoid building on the Green Belt.
But first he had to submit himself to “examination by Spreadsheet Phil”, Philip Hammond, who had the relevant spreadsheet to hand, and wanted to know what “this bit on page five, line one, actually means.”
Street talks with enormous enthusiasm about regenerating the West Midlands by convening all the interested parties and getting them to work together.
He says that this time, he no longer needs to explain what the Mayor can do: he can point instead to what the Mayor is doing. He sounds like a man with the wind in his sails, and he insisted the election is about what is happening in his region, with nobody mentioning the accusations the press has made against Johnson.
But the West Midlands do still contain a large number of people who scarcely register in opinion polls, except perhaps as “don’t knows”.
On emerging at lunchtime yesterday from Walsall Station, and feeling hungry, I ordered a hamburger from a stall, and while it was being fried, asked the stallholder how he would be voting on Thursday.
“I don’t agree with it, mate,” he replied. “Whoever gets in screws you over.”
But what, as a matter of interest, does he think of Andy Street?
“Never heard of him,” the man replied.
In every part of the country, a large number of people are what one might call principled non-voters. They believe that whoever they might vote for would let them down, so they refuse to support anyone.
Street, however, is at least much better known than he was four years ago, and can run on his track record. He has become a far more formidable candidate than he was when he stood and won in 2017.