Greg Hands, the Conservative candidate for Chelsea and Fulham, tells Cat Neilan why this is the toughest election he’s had to fight
BEING a Conservative candidate in some of London’s most exclusive constituencies used to be a walk in one of their leafy parks. But such is the political realignment in the wake of Brexit that things just aren’t what they used to be.
Greg Hands, who is hoping to retain the Chelsea and Fulham seat he has held since 2005, is a polyglot Europhile who campaigned for Remain in 2016 and resigned his ministerial post over Heathrow — a key constituency issue.
On a personal level, he seems to be the very embodiment of the constituency. And yet, as becomes clear during one morning shadowing him on the campaign trail, he has his work cut out convincing lifelong Tory voters to stick with him.
The chief “threat”, as one of those campaigning alongside him says, is Nicola Horlick, seeking election as a Liberal Democrat. She is wooing
Remainers who can stomach neither Brexit nor voting Labour, and the impact is showing.
“This is the toughest election I’ve had since I won the seat from Labour in 2005,” Hands says.
“The Liberal Democrats can’t win here. They got 11 per cent last time, they haven’t won here for 100 years. But the danger is flirting with Lib Dems over Brexit delivers a Labour MP, just like it did in Kensington.”
The “vote Lib Dem, get Corbyn” message is one Hands and his team roll out to any wavering voters.
But these warnings receive a mixed reaction — some shrugs and one
resident who remains resolute that he cannot vote for the Conservatives,
despite his candidate’s cheery attempts at persuasion.
Hands concedes there are “one or two people who are prepared to risk Corbyn over Brexit”, but by and large he thinks the message is going down well, as long as they are considering “the next five years” rather than the next couple of months. What about the next 20 years, as some fear the economic impact of Brexit could last?
Hands insists a Corbyn government would be worse for his constituents.
“Whichever way Brexit moves the economic dial, the potential of some of the policies McDonnell and Corbyn are talking about could dwarf that,” he says.
Corbyn gets a mention on Hands’ leaflet — but not the Prime Minister. It’s apparent that it’s not just Brexit that is turning people off. Boris Johnson is also making Hands’ job more difficult. One resident tells me it’s “Brexit and Boris” in equal measure that is making her waver.
Hands insists his boss hasn’t been snubbed. Instead he is running on his record, including the fact he is the only government minister to have
resigned over a constituency issue in 100 years, namely Heathrow.
Unlike Johnson, I note. That’s a question for him, Hands tells me.
“The Heathrow vote is coming to me anyway — we own Heathrow as an issue amongst people for whom it is a very big issue.”
The question of Johnson’s likeability is no small one. Some Tories have told City A.M. they struggle with the PM’s personal life on the doorstep of affluent, older neighbourhoods. And, while it might be working in parts of the country that Tory HQ wants to conquer, some of the language Johnson is using has gone down poorly.
With his focus on the north, Johnson might not be visiting anytime soon, but chancellor Sajid Javid swings by to visit a few local businesses — whose customers talk of their concerns both of Corbyn and the current Prime
In a brief chat with City A.M., Javid acknowledges the party is “not complacent” about the struggle London MPs face, but insists the message that a deal is “ready to go if only we get a majority” is going down well.
Javid insists London is not being neglected. “The battleground seats [are] in the north and midlands, but equally we are putting just as much
effort into keeping and winning seats here,” he says.
After his whistlestop visit, the chancellor is whisked away into his ministerial car. Hands and his team, a mixture of younger residents and business owners, plus retirees who have been pounding the streets for hours, disband.
The team believes constituents have a “simple choice” between backing their incumbent or backing an anti-capitalist — there is no alternative. “For most Remainers, they may be unhappy about Brexit, but I meet very few people who are unhappy about me,” says Hands.
The question remains whether tribal ties and a fondness for the incumbent will be enough to keep him in place.