The 'Strong and Stable' tour bus and Air Force Numb - On the campaign trail with Theresa May
In the final two days of the snap election campaign, I followed Theresa May on a whistle stop tour of Britain. She visited a farmhouse, a home store and a science festival and held numerous planned 'chats' with friendly voters. She took questions from journalists 19,000 feet in the air on a private jet and was lucky enough to meet a "really good" boules player. All in all she covered almost 800 miles and stopped in nine marginal constituencies... and it was dry.
Theresa May makes a stop at a bread shop and the press pack gets feral. Styles Bakery in Fleetwood (Labour majority: 1,265) has never seen such interest – with hacks crammed in and craning to get a view of the PM. She gets herself behind the counter with owner Neil and talks cakes. “What’s in these?” she inquires. “Oh! Jam.” The chat is hard to hear above the throng of desperate media and beleaguered Tory activists, but we glean the revelation that she once worked in a bakery as a Saturday job. “She asked about Chorley cakes,” Neil tells me after the PM heads to to the café area (a couple of tables near the window) to grace her supporters. He has always voted Tory. A staff member in a tabard (of course) used to vote Labour but will now be backing Theresa’s Conservative Candidate. Just what the aides want the press to hear. The PM chats with her blue rosette-sporting fans for about four minutes, downs her coffee and splits. No time for a Chorley cake - eating one with the cameras around would certainly be risky.
An hour or two later and we’re in a farm in Clywd South, North Wales. (Labour majority: 2,402) Nice setting – smells a bit like poo. The press pack waits anxiously for the PM to get off her bus and greet a family. There is a little cordon for hacks to stand behind - only about a metre long to restrain a throng of 30 or so… but somehow it works. The happy family stands in the right place for the camera shot and waits to welcome the PM at the right moment. They are friendly, naturally. The hacks get quizzical. Why THIS family? Why THIS farm? Are they big donors? None of the aides know. The PM emerges with a smile and is led inside the farmhouse. Then we wait. And wait. It’s cold. Apparently she is having a coffee and a chat about farming – Brexit and that, we suppose. Whispers spread that the PM will emerge from the side of the house, through a gate. An aide moves a plant pot to hold the gate open... the rumour must be true. They don’t want the PM to have to open the gate herself… no. Too risky. And she might look too regal if the aide holds it open for her. The snappers get into position for her imminent appearance. We stand there shivering. Cows and security staff loiter in the background. Finally she emerges. The snappers launch into a chaos of clicks. The PM darts towards a barn with a tractor in it - pretending it’s not all for show. Then it’s over. We get back on the bus.
Next stop – a drizzly rugby ground in Stoke South. (Labour majority: 2,539) Surrounded by dewy-eyed Tory activists the PM makes her stump speech and rallies the troops – then it’s question time. Hands go up and May bats away a few inquiries. I ask her if - as a vicar’s daughter - she feels guilty running such a negative campaign against Jeremy Corbyn, and if there is anything she likes or respects about the Labour leader. Restless activists get ruffled. She insists her message has been “optimistic” and ignores the second part of the question. She can’t even say something nice about Corbyn. Too risky.
Later the PM bounds off the bus at a science festival in Cheltenham. (Tory majority: 6,516) The hack pack aren’t allowed to trail her around the hordes of kids, gadgets and gizmos - just one reporter from PA gets the honour. We are ushered up to a balcony overlooking the enormous hall where the event is in full force – and play a game of ‘Where’s Wally?’ trying to spot the PM as she navigates a quantum computer and a steam powered vending machine.
Finally it’s on to the last event of the day: a big (not Corbyn-sized, of course) rally in Slough. (Labour majority: 7,336) The kind where they get the bus in a warehouse to make people think: ‘Shit – that’s a bus and it’s INSIDE!’ We’ve already been briefed that May will vow to sweep aside human rights laws in a bid to crack down on terror. Our stories are written up and ready to fly when she says it - so the hacks have been kept happy. Boris Johnson is here to give the warm-up speech. The Foreign Secretary talks fast, throws in the gags and gets the crowd raring. He of course totally upstages the PM, who as a result comes on sounding more dreary and uninspiring than ever before. She does what she has to do, announces the terror blitz proposals, the converted cheer and we’re away.
Next day, and we’re back on the bus, trundling towards a Southampton Test bowling green. (Labour majority 3,810) The PM has already suffered a bruising 5.30am visit to Smithfields meat market, where she was booed by butchers. At Atherley Bowling Club the reception is friendlier… it bleeds Tory. A bunch of oldies greet the PM and hand out Blue Riband bars (strong and stable) to the hack pack penned behind another cordon. “This is Jill – she’s a really good bowler,” the boules man tasked with leading the visit tells the PM. “Oh right,” she replies, before sitting for a milk-less tea in the sun. A game goes on over on the green… not part of the league, of course, just a friendly for the cameras. Somehow the PM gets away without taking a shot herself. Too risky.
Next up, things get glitzy. We’re ferried to the airport and board the PM’s private jet for a flight to exotic Norwich. May is sitting up front already as the hacks shuffle down the aisle, and I try to catch her eye to signal no hard feelings from the Q&A the day before. I’m unsure if my gesture cuts through. At the back of the plane the leather seats and marbled fold-out tables get the press pack in a lather. We thank the Tory donor who put this treat on – doubly so when coffee and pastries start doing the rounds. Shortly before the descent the PM stages a ‘huddle’ – standing up to take questions in the aisle as the journos crowd around. The small plane bounces along at 19,000 feet as reporters try to make her say something… anything of any note. She refuses to say the election will have been pointless if she is denied her expected landslide. She insists she has no regrets about her stuttering campaign. She is kind enough to send her best to Diane Abbott, who has been taken ill. Soon enough the ground is rushing up – no metaphors intended – so the questions have to end and we touch down in sunny Norwich North. (Tory majority: 4,463)
Another holding room, then another indoor rally in a nondescript building... the kind with blue felt on the walls and those polystyrene ceiling tiles which give way if you leap up and punch them. The PM jumps on the stump and says she wants to build “a country that feels more confident in itself”… whatever that is. She bats away a few questions from hacks about whether the terror crackdown is a knee-jerk reaction, policy-making on the hoof or yet another U-turn. She even manages to say nothing of interest when asked: "What have you learned about yourself during this campaign?” Minutes later we are shuttled out and back onto Air Force Numb. This time lunch is laid on – four fingers of sandwich containing (left to right) egg mayonnaise, chicken, smoked salmon and ham… followed by a scone. Thanks Theresa.
Just as the sleep-inducing leather begins to do its work, we touch down in Nottingham South (Labour majority: 6,936) and make the short ride into town. Suddenly hacks find themselves bathed in bright white light and surrounded by beanbags, plate sets and bed spreads. We are in Dunelm home and furniture store. In a stock room at the back, four staff members are waiting avidly for the PM to appear. Sure enough, a side door opens and she strides in with husband Philip. The atmosphere is tense. For once we can hear the ‘chat with voters’ with alarming clarity. “Tell me a bit about the business,” May asks, awkwardly, among piles of cardboard boxes and metal racks filled with homely goods. The utter dullness of it aches like a sore. To make matters worse the PM is surrounded by exit signs – all of them pointing in her direction. She heads to the staff canteen for further boring talks, but the press pack is blocked at the door. Not through there. Too risky. Local hacks are unimpressed. Matt Jaram, senior reporter for the Nottingham Post, has never seen anything like the “bizarre” visit. He adds: “She looks tired – I think she just wants to go home and put her feet up and have a cup of tea… or a bottle of wine.”
After travelling almost 800 miles in two days, Theresa May holds her final campaign rally in Solihull. (Tory majority: 12,902) Her Cabinet have been kind enough to turn up - even though some of them must be seething about the dry campaign, the blunder on social care and the grinding down of the Tory poll lead. The hacks are tired and bored. But Theresa May is happy, and so are the aides. It was tough, but it’s over. The PM was kept away from hostile voters and managed to stay firmly to the script. So it's job done. Now the future of the country rests in the hands of the public.