When I met up with Chris Huhne’s team on Saturday morning the full effect of what ITN had described as a ‘political earthquake’ had not yet fully sunk into public consciousness.
The previous day, following the televised debate, while Chris Huhne was making his way back from Manchester, a clearly shell shocked Gordon Brown – a man not widely noted for his joviality – was featured on rolling news stumbling around from press call to press call guffawing like a loon with the kind forced smile on his face that only rigor and a mortician could be expected to achieve.
‘The Sun’ is predicting 104 seats for Liberal democrats off the back off their latest ‘yougov’ poll but Chris Huhne refuses to get carried away and sounds a note of caution by pointing out in the 1920’s and 1930’s predicted swings failed to materialise in elections.
He feels though, that the debates were a good way of connecting with the ‘x factor generation’. Personality can be just as important as policy he says:
“It sounds ridiculous to reduce the governance of the country to the same principles as X factor but governments have to react to all sorts of unpredictable events. You have to ensure that the people you elect have the same values you have.”
Today the Lib Dems are canvassing on the ‘Aviary’, a 1950’s council estate set sprawled against that rarest of Eastleigh geographical features – a hill. We set up base camp at the former golf clubhouse and split into teams that are a mixture of party workers and councillors – including two former mayors – and head off to work our way slowly, house by house, to the summit.
Being a Saturday most people are out –but that’s not stopping Chris Huhne who is knocking on doors, walking around the back and peering over garden gates to make sure they are indeed out and not just in hiding.
When voters are spotted out pottering in the garden or washing the car, then he quickly bears down on them, hand extended, striding purposefully over ornamental walls and lawns.
“Hello Mr Smith, I’m Chris Huhne, can I count on your support?”
Some look a little startled at first – even annoyed – but all are quickly overwhelmed by his infectious geniality and all are left rosy cheeked and smiling.
I linger to talk to two women he has just canvassed but they appear to have been mesmerised.
“So, what did you think of Chris Huhne then? “
‘He is very nice. Lovely’ they coo, completely star struck.
It is clear from the proliferation of orange posters-on-a-stake that the Liberal Democrats have already canvassed the area but here they are, back in force, for round two.
Chris tells me every household in the constituency will have received at least one Lib Dem knock on the door during the campaign.
I only spot one Conservative sign on our way round –there are no Ukip posters to be seen and none for Labour.
I can remember, this was once a staunch Labour area. I wonder how has the Labour Party managed to disconnect itself from its traditional core support?
Is it just a question of Liberal Democrats campaigning harder?
“What politics is really about is about being seen all year round not just turning up at election time and you have to have a council team that really delivers when people have problems.”
‘All politics is local’ He said quoting US Democrat Tip O’ Neil.
Did you ever support the Labour Party?
“I did when I was kid at Oxford – before they went mad in the early 80s with Militant, unilateral disarmament, getting out of Europe….”
Crumbs! All the things that caused him to leave the Labour Party in the 1980s are the same things that drew me into it at the time! These are also things that the current Labour Party leadership also once supported- but have since repudiated.
“Lib dem policy is not in favour of replacing Trident” I ask “So are you now in favour of disarmament?
“All we are saying is Trident is a system which is appropriate for the cold war before 1989.
We are not saying get rid of bombs altogether.
Keep the ones which are appropriate for the problems that we’ve got which are places like Iran and North Korea – and appropriate for our deficit.
We are not in favour of unilateral disarmament.”
I find this a bit disquieting. Neither North Korea nor Iran have any nuclear weapons – as far as I know they don’t even have the technology to deliver a conventional payload within 1,000 miles of the UK.
It seems to me unreasonable that all three parties are committed to some degree, to spending billions in maintaining a nuclear arsenal against a nonexistent threat while at same time talking about making cuts to public services, even the NHS.
It’s a warm day but Chris Huhne is still headed uphill at speed in jacket, shirt and tie – talking policy and leaving assorted councillors and party workers trailing in his wake
Everyone we meet seems pleased to see Mr Huhne.
Even a passerby, Frank, a man with some rather right wing views, stops for a friendly chat.
Frank is 58 and unable to work as he is waiting for a liver transplant but his disability allowance has been withdrawn leaving him on job seekers allowance which makes him one of 2000 people in the constituency trying to survive on £64.30 per week.
Chris Huhne tells him it’s not right he should be refused ESA if his consultant has put him on a waiting list and offers to take the matter up for him.
In what way could you assist Frank? I ask Chris,
“I would write to the DWP and say – here is the medical evidence, how can this man possibly work until he has had an operation? I always write to the top. I write to the Minister.
One of the good things about having a high profile is I get action fairly quick”
The team has reached the summit and its time to turn back.
Chris looks disappointed while I try to hide my relief as it is starting to get even warmer.
As we set off downhill I ask him about the headline Liberal Democrat policy – the raising of the tax threshold to £10,000.
“Well, this shows the difference between our policy on Tax cuts and that of the Conservatives.
Our priority is helping ordinary families with the raising of the threshold to £10,000 which will give everyone a £700 tax cut and the Conservative priority of raising the threshold on property worth over a million and there probably isn’t a single house in the constituency worth over a million quid.
Why did they stop short of raising it to National Minimum Wage of £11,500?
“I would like that and that’s a policy I would have liked us to commit to but the package we have put forward is a package designed to rebalance the whole tax system without raising rates. In the long term we need to get up to the minimum wage but this is an important first step.”
A couple of lads pushing a BMX bike pass by and yell out cheerily:
‘Oi! Chris Huhne!!’
He smiles and waves.
I don’t think that I knew the name of my MP when I was their age.
A white van then comes towards us tooting its horn as the driver gives Chris big ‘thumbs up’.
Chris happily waves back.
He is enjoying the recognition.
Everyone knows him. He is that bloke off the telly – the most famous thing to come out of Eastleigh since Heinz Burt strapped on a bass and busted a riff.
What was it he said about connecting with the ‘X Factor’ generation?
Chris Huhne is undoubtedly far better known now then he was in 2005.
And what was that ITN were saying about earthquakes?
Don’t they sometimes trigger landslides?
Photo copyright: Eastleigh News 2010