Newark has become a destination for Conservative campaigners demoralised by the local & European results. Around this Nottinghamshire market town there are whispers of victory in the by-election on Thursday. If Robert Jenrick wins big, then the momentum created by that, and the effect upon Conservative volunteers will be great. Defeat or narrow victory here could cause some to doubt their faith.
The operation for the Conservative party, led by George Hollingbery, has been impressive. Evidence of how seriously the party takes Newark is in front of any volunteer: the wall to the right of the entrance is one long roll of honour, the signatures and dates of MPs who have campaigned. It’s like the Top Gear test track board. A show of solidarity by the parliamentary party, it creates a sense of fun: the feeling you get from knowing that you might be part of the winning team.
As a foot soldier for the day, I was in and back out again with my instructions in minutes. The campaign office is geared to handle large numbers and they have to be. Thursday’s visit by the PM brought a surge of volunteers and members of the press. Keeping the show on the road on days like that is currently one of the bigger challenges for the campaign team. Hundreds of activists are expected to turn up for Thursday’s Get Out The Vote operation, crucial because much of the Conservative support is scattered in smaller outlying villages. If on Thursday they lack enough volunteers to ‘knock up’ voters, then this entire effort may have been wasted.
If Newark shows Ukip support settling back down, it will help to make the argument that voters hold those we send to the Commons to a higher standard. Send the clowns to Brussels by all means, but we’re more discerning when it comes to Westminster. This weekend saw the arrival of the Road Trip 2015 campaigners, hundreds of students bussed up for a weekend of campaigning, curry, and a fair bit to drink. Many of the rising stars involved in this team frequent outfits like the Young Briton’s Foundation, a group straddling the libertarian overlap between the Conservatives and Ukip. We know that young talent is jumping ship from Ukip. Every sip taken from their young activist base leaves the glass a little emptier, and what remains becomes mostly backwash.
I’m not sure how much the people of Newark can take of this. Several residents handed back the literature as they had received enough already. At one doorstep I was queuing behind a local Labour canvasser, who took my leaflet from me and posted it through the door. He thought that Labour would drop a place and come third. Despite much talk of Ukip I saw only one lawn sign, and one fifty-something man driving down the high street on a cream-coloured touring motorbike with purple flags fluttering from it. The biker vote in Newark does not seem sizeable. If it had been a four-wheel drive or a flash caravan, I’d have been more concerned.
If the Conservatives were to lose Newark then the game would be up. If Jenrick wins by only a narrow majority then many volunteers will despair. This by-election has support that less winnable seats will never see next year. Children walked past me in the high street carrying Conservative helium-filled balloons. Unlike Wythenshawe or Eastleigh, there is the sense that this is going well, and that volunteers are enjoying themselves.
Newark is a chance for volunteers to press the reset button after the local elections, to show voters that they can win in the fight that counts. For the people of Newark this is a chance to react to the European election results: is that one cheeky pint of Ukip support almost finished? If volunteers are persuaded to make the pilgrimage to Newark on Thursday one final time to find those voters down long country tracks, it will be a huge boost for the grass roots, 335 days out from the general election.