The traveller who arrives in Sidcup by train and turns up Station Road towards the town centre comes almost at once upon a sign to Orpington, scene of the astonishing Liberal by-election triumph in 1962.
It would be still more astonishing if the Liberal Democrats were to win tomorrow’s by-election in Old Bexley and Sidcup. In the Alma pub, just off Station Road, the Lib Dems were mentioned only once, by a voter still angry with them for supporting the Conservatives in 2010.
Many more people mentioned Labour, but again in tones of anger and disappointment, with Sir Keir Starmer not yet thought to have made the party fit for its former supporters to return to, and a vote for the Conservatives still reckoned by some to be needed in order to make Labour come to its senses.
Several people mentioned Richard Tice, who is standing for Reform UK, successor to the Brexit Party, but no one thought he is as formidable a campaigner as Nigel Farage.
Boris Johnson came in for heavy criticism from Conservative voters for his recent performances, but few could yet name an alternative leader they would rather see in Downing Street.
Hence perhaps the confused state of British politics: Johnson has become less popular, but no clear rival to him has emerged, and even some of his critics said they will still vote Conservative in the by-election, or indeed that they have already done so by post.
A curious dynamic could be detected, whereby Labour might help to prop up the Tory vote by itself being even less convincing.
James Brokenshire, who died on 7th October, held Old Bexley and Sidcup for the Conservatives at the last general election with a majority of 18,952 over Labour, who received 10,834 votes, with the Lib Dems in third place on 3,822.
So Labour ought to be the main challenger here, but Sir Keir has stayed away from the by-election, and may have timed this week’s Shadow Cabinet reshuffle to forestall criticism in the event of a weak performance tomorrow.
The Lib Dems recently showed what can be done in a by-election by turning the Tory majority of 16,223 in Chesham and Amersham into a majority for their candidate of 8,028.
It would be amazing if Labour achieve anything comparable in Old Bexley and Sidcup, especially when one considers the story of this man, who works in insurance and wants to “punish Labour”:
“I’m not from South-East London [Sidcup is on the border with Kent]. I’m from East London. I’ve been here for 20 years.
“I grew up in Cable Street, Stepney. My parents were Irish Catholics, working class, who came over here in the 1950s.
“I first voted in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher got in. I despised her politics – she was a fantastic politician, I respected what she did, but I was never going to be a Tory.
“I voted for a Conservative Party led by Boris Johnson! The only thing I would say is the reason I did that was I was actually trying to punish the Labour Party for being so absolutely stupid.
“I just hated and despised them for finding a winning formula [under Blair], and then moving to the Left. And then Corbyn – are you completely mad?
“He’s like Dennis Skinner and those guys – I admire them for the fact they stick to their principles – Tony Benn, Michael Foot, great men – but Corbyn, I just thought you cannot be serious.
“Tony Blair – he won three elections – two landslides.
“We didn’t win because we didn’t take it far enough to the Left? Are you stupid?
“So what do you do, you put up Boris Johnson who is the antithesis of Jeremy Corbyn and he wins and takes your heartlands away from you.”
ConHome: “What do you think of Keir?”
The insurance worker: “I like him. He is a good guy. I think he’s fighting an internal battle that I’m not sure he’s going to win.”
ConHome: “And what do you think of Boris Johnson?”
The insurance worker: “He might get away with it. He is what he is. He wouldn’t be my choice of PM in a million years. I think he’ll get in and Labour will have to have a rethink.
“In 2019 I voted Tory for the first time ever. I didn’t vote for Boris. I got very annoyed when the Liberals went with the Tories. I got so annoyed with Labour when they went for Corbyn.
“This experiment of going Left didn’t work, so they went further Left! I am Labour, and Tony Blair gave me the Labour Party I wanted.
“I voted Tory in the by-election [by post] because I’m still pissed off with the Labour Party. They need to persuade me.
“I do beat myself up voting Tory. I’m one of those people, I have to vote. I’m just that annoyed. Someone that grew up on Cable Street, in Stepney, Tower Hamlets as it’s now called, I shouldn’t be in this position. Labour need to persuade me to vote for them again.”
A retired man having a drink with two of his friends said: “It’s sad that the incumbent MP has died. I’ve not met the new MP. I’m a traditional Conservative voter and I will vote Conservative, I have already [by post].
“But my comment would be it’s time Boris went and we got someone more competent in the job. We call him the buffoon.”
Second man: “I think he did well with Covid.”
The first man: “I support the Conservative Party but I’m not a member of the Conservative Party. I’m not quite sure who there is who I’d like to take over.
“He falls over his tongue so often it’s embarrassing. And now he’s upset Macron again, not that that’s difficult to do. He’s texted him a letter. What’s he doing behaving like a teenager?”
Third man: “I’ve been Conservative most of my life. I’m not sure about Boris lately. Just lately he’s been a bit of an idiot.”
First man: “At the back of my road there’s the playing fields. The Round Table on Guy Fawkes Night would always have a fireworks display to raise money for charity. I was waiting with some of my friends and we saw Ted Heath rushing down the road with some policemen.”
Heath, who died in 2001, served as MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup until 2001, having first won the seat of Bexley (which had different boundaries) by 133 votes from Labour in 1950.
“I said, ‘Mr Heath, would you like to come for a short cut through here?’ He said ‘Thank you very much’ and his shoulders shook.”
So he showed Heath through his own house and back garden onto the playing fields. He remembered the former Prime Minister with respect:
“He was a good constituency MP. I had cause to write to him on a couple of occasions and I always got a reply. I think he was a nice chap and he suffered a lot at the hands of the press. I guess if you put yourself in that position you have to put up with it.”
Not all Conservative voters will stick with the party tomorrow. Richard Payne, aged 72, who until the age of 44 was a foreign exchange dealer but later worked as a milkman and a plumber, said he could be called “pissed off from Sidcup”, and will “definitely” be voting for Reform UK:
“Well I think the Government’s in a state. The Tories are letting everyone down. Boris is letting everyone down. Immigration, people coming over willy-nilly, it’s ridiculous.
“They’re kowtowing to the French all the time. We didn’t vote for that. And believe it or not, I’m a lifelong Tory supporter. I’ve always voted Conservative in the past.
“At the end of the day you need strong leadership. And the only person in my time who’s had strong leadership is Maggie. She’s my hero.
“To begin with, Boris was all right. All right, he’s had a tough time with the pandemic, it’s not easy to walk into something that’s never been known.”
ConHome: “He got Brexit done?”
Payne: “Well yeah, but he wouldn’t have got back in otherwise. His trade agreement with the EU wasn’t much better than Theresa May came out with, and that was rubbish.
“As far as I’m concerned you can forget Labour. Blair was bad. Corbyn was even worse. Starmer reminds me of John Major. Faceless. Grey man.
“Excuse me. We’ve got to look after the British people. You’ve got to look after your own. The duty of a government is to protect its people. If Nigel Farage was standing I’d vote for him. He seems to be the only one who’s got the courage of his convictions.”
ConHome: “What’s the name of the guy who’s taken over from Farage?”
“Richard Tice. He hasn’t got his persona. I can’t believe that Farage would not be there in the background. This really came out in the Brexit vote. He was saying stop all the immigrants coming over. He was accused of being racist. We do need immigrants obviously, but not uncontrolled. It has to be controlled.
“The NHS is a – forget the NHS – I’ve been waiting for a knee operation for goodness knows how long. I can’t get to see my doctor. They said you need a new knee three years ago.
“He’s done a good job in rolling out the vaccinations. I’m not anti-vax. I’ve had them all. Booster. Flu jab. If they had another booster I’d have that.
“Boris has got to follow through with it. It’s no good promising the world and you end up with nothing, or very little. You can’t keep deceiving the British public. If Labour had a stronger leader he might well get kicked out.
“There’s too many bleeding heart liberals in the country. There are. I’m not racist. Racism is a two-way street, but it doesn’t seem to work that way in reality. We can’t call these people coming over in boats illegal immigrants, we’ve got to call them migrants.
“He’s trying to appease everybody and you can’t do that. You’ve got to say this is where we stand and that’s it. But he doesn’t do it.
“If he doesn’t pull his finger out he’s going to be out.
“Though without the help of Macron we can’t do anything, and Macron is a little shit, all five foot three inches of him. Him, Sarkozy, Napoleon. At the end of the day, I don’t think the French people hate the English. It’s just him.”
Before going to the Alma, I spoke to a group of six ladies, friends from Holy Trinity Church, who had just had lunch in the Pascal Bistro, Station Road, and were drinking coffee.
“Jeremy Brokenshire will be a very, very hard act to follow,” one of them said.
“We miss Jeremy terribly,” a second agreed.
“The young man who’s being put forward [by the Conservatives, Louie French], I’m glad he’s local, but otherwise we don’t know anything about him,” the first woman remarked.
“He sounds all right to me,” a third said.
“We haven’t really heard anything about him,” a fourth said.
“We’ve had lots of literature. But then I’ve had a bit from Reform UK and from Labour,” the first woman said.
“I think the Conservatives will get in because of the area.” the second woman declared. “I will vote Conservative – I can’t imagine voting for anyone else. But just recently there’ve been a number of gaffes and I don’t think that’s going to help.”
“He’s making silly mistakes,” the first woman said. “For example the open letter to the French president. What’s that all about, stupid man?”
“Whoever happened to come in just at the beginning of the pandemic was going to have a difficult time,” the second woman said.
“But there was nothing wrong with that letter,” a fifth woman put in. “Apparently it was read out on the radio to a French MP and he agreed with every item on it.”
“So why did they cancel the invitation to Priti Patel?” the first woman asked.
“We don’t like him to make mistakes,” the second woman said.
“We like Boris,” the first woman said. “For a few years I voted for the Green Party.”
“Bring back Margaret Thatcher, that’s what I say,” the fifth woman said.
Gales of laughter, and cries of “No! No!” from some of her friends.
“I voted for Margaret Thatcher but I’ve completely changed my views since,” the first woman said.
“I would be surprised if they weren’t voted in again,” the second said. “The Reform guy has been round door to door,” she added.
“He’s certainly put in the hours of work,” the first agreed.
It did not sound to me as if Reform is going to peel off a very large chunk of the Tory vote. But I may have been misled by the sheer friendliness with which I was received by almost everyone in Sidcup.