Whichever way people vote in the General Election, change is coming to the Cities of London and Westminster.
Former minister Mark Field has stood down, after being accused of assault by a Greenpeace activist this summer, with Westminster Council leader Nickie Aiken the new Conservative candidate fighting to keep this marginal constituency blue.
Having been Tory since it was created in 1950, Two Cities is being eyed by the Liberal Democrats’ Chuka Umunna, who fancies his chances in one of the most pro-Remain parts of the country.
But with the Lib Dems winning just 11 per cent of the total in 2017, Aiken fears it is actually Labour candidate Gordon Nardell who could end up snatching victory in December.
“People don’t realise this is only a 3,000 majority,” she tells me during a light lunch, squeezed between council business and campaigning.
“I had it three or four times last week — people who have voted Conservative all their lives now saying they’ll vote Lib Dem. But when they realise their protest vote will lead to a Labour MP, they soon change their minds.”
Having lived in Pimlico for 20 years, Aiken believes she has the upper hand against her rivals.
Like Umunna, she is a Remainer who was “devastated when we lost the referendum”. But unlike her rival, she says: “I now just want an end to this” — pointing to the “paralysis” caused by the three-and-a-half years of parliament failing to deliver on their manifesto commitments.
Voters who think they might be able to stop the process are misguided, she believes. “If you vote Lib Dem in seats like mine, like Greg [Hands, Chelsea & Fulham MP], Kensington, Putney, you are going to hand Corbyn the keys to Number 10,” Aiken says.
“Some people say ‘well maybe that’s what we need’ but how would a Marxist help the situation? He doesn’t believe in the EU — he is going to see it through — but on top of everything else he will destroy the economy.”
Like every other Conservative candidate, Aiken has signed to a pledge to back the PM’s Brexit deal. If Brexit isn’t delivered, she fears, Britain will see the rise of the far right as other European countries have done.
But clearly she rails against the decision — which she blames on the EU for being “rigid” with David Cameron —suggesting the vote could be overturned in the medium term.
“There probably will be another referendum, in our children’s generation,” she says. “Let our children decide in 10, 15 years — when the EU will have hopefully changed.”
When it comes to local residents, she says they are more “concerned about Brexit than Boris, but more concerned about Corbyn than either”.
One Nation Toryism
She recognises her boss is “Marmite” -— he doesn’t feature on her campaign literature — but rejects my suggestion that his language has at times been inflammatory.
“In all his recent speeches, he talks about One Nation Toryism and that’s what I am,” she says, justifying some of Johnson’s phrases as reflecting the public’s “frustration” at parliament for not doing what it was elected to do.
“Whatever people think about Boris’ Brexit stance, he is a One Nation Tory, just like me. Under him we will see a different Britain, and it will be a better one.”
He sacked quite a few One Nation Tories, I point out, many of whom have stood down at this election.
Aiken interprets this as a question about women stepping down, arguing that this is because they were spending too much time away from their families, adding that “toxic” Twitter — which she no longer uses — also played a part.
I also point to Johnson’s use of racist phrases in the past, some of which are now being used by his rivals as evidence of how unsuitable he is to be Prime Minister.
“It’s not language I would use,” Aiken, William Hague’s former press secretary, concedes. “I think he’s been very clear that he wouldn’t use that again. But… we have got to get back to proper discourse, proper debate, be a much more constructive parliament.”
“We have got to hold our promises that we make in our manifestos and deliver — in a constructive and grown-up way — and leave all the toxic social media nonsense at the door,” she adds.
As Westminster Council leader Aiken is used to working pragmatically, with both “centre-left and centre-right” politicians to get things done.
She points to her record as proof that she takes tough decisions and makes things work, having overseen an outstanding-rated children’s services at a time when her budget has been cut in half.
She also argues that austerity isn’t to blame for the rise in knife crime, saying that while it’s “important” that public services are properly funded, the 20,000 extra police officers pledged by Johnson is “just the start”.
So-called county lines drugs operations — something which you rarely hear MPs and candidates mention, although Johnson did reference it in a speech last week — are also a huge issue for Aiken.
She describes it as “the most serious child exploitation this country has ever faced”, comparing it to grooming “like the kids being sent to Isis”.
And, with one of her parents recently diagnosed with dementia, social care is never far from her mind, either. Theresa May’s policy “certainly was wrong” but the time to act is now, she suggests.
“We have had enough research, enough reviews, enough public inquiries,” she says. “We know what has to be done and we have just got to get on with it.”
The key, Aiken believes, is to integrate social care, local authorities and the NHS to ensure a joined-up approach.
But how ought we pay for it, I ask. “That’s the six-billion-dollar question,” she replies. “But this is an area I would be really interested in working on. The state can’t do it all.”
This is exactly what she believes a Johnson-led government will achieve — if it clinches a working majority.
“I want to see a reforming government, I do believe that under Boris Johnson we will be a reforming government,” she says.
“Business rates, council funding, social care — the big ticket issues that Labour, coalition and Conservative governments have ignored for 30 years — it’s time now for a change.”
Main image: Getty