There are Tory heartlands and there is Shefford, a small town in the middle of Bedfordshire, in the middle of England, at the centre of one of the safest Conservative seats on the electoral map. “There’s a saying around here,” says a man outside Saint Michael and All Angels church (he did not want to be named). “If you painted a cockroach blue it would get elected in Shefford.”
The 13th-century market town, floating in a political sea of blue between Luton and Bedford, ought, therefore, to be a stronghold for the country’s newest demographic: the “swivel-eyed loon”, the term allegedly used by the Tory Party chairman, Lord Feldman, to refer to Conservative party activists in places just like this.
Lord Feldman, also the Prime Minister’s tennis partner, denied using the phrase but such was the response Mr Cameron felt compelled to send a “personal note” to members, praising their “duty, decency and civic pride”. Was it enough to placate Shefford’s loons?
There were no eyes of any sort at the offices of the Shefford Conservative Association. Its sometime occupant, Nadine Dorries MP, was in London having been welcomed back into the Westminster jungle after her surprise turn as an I’m a Celebrity contestant briefly lost her the whip. In the same week that she suggested standing as a joint Tory-Ukip candidate in 2015, Ms Dorries tweeted her response to Lord Feldman’s alleged remarks, calling his denial “almost worse than the comment itself”.
Dorries’ influence is clear in Shefford. Across the road, at the Chatterbox Cafe, few were minded to talk politics; residents have become wary of visitors from the press, recalling the convoy of TV news trucks that blocked the high street when Dorries turned up in the other jungle.
They were more forthright at Spitfire Travel, however. The woman behind the desk, who, again, preferred not to be named, was a life-long Tory voter whose partner has run for local office in nearby Newport Pagnell. The couple displays posters in the windows of their home during elections. Did they identify themselves as loons?
“I didn’t understand what he even meant by it,” the woman says. “If you get to a position like these men who are comfortable for the rest of their lives it’s not surprising they don’t understand what it’s like.”
She shared the scepticism of a large part of a fracturing Conservative Party at odds with its leader over issues such as Europe and gay marriage. Frustration around such debates in central office is reportedly what prompted the “loon” slur.
“Don’t get me started on marriage,” she says. “I don’t worry about homosexual relationships but marriage is about procreation and Cameron is going to have big problems if he doesn’t realise that.” Her son is gay and in a civil partnership, she adds, but “wouldn’t want to get married anyway.”
A resident outside the post office suggests a man called Lewis Birt, a member of Central Bedfordshire Council, would offer the best picture of Tory grassroots. Opening his front door, the former army major in his eighties, does not hold back.
“Mr Cameron and his coterie of Eton wallahs wouldn’t like to meet me face to face,” he says. “They take it as a fact that we will carry on doing what we do. And we do, but when they go prettying around saying this and that I’m afraid we view them rather as naive young gentlemen.”
But what would the councillor, who refers to Westminster as a “rabid mob”, say this week? “I’d say, you don’t know which way is up! I can’t think of anyone in Government at the moment who has earned my respect. Barely any of them has known a world outside politics. That’s the problem.
“Let me show you something,” Mr Birt says, retrieving a piece of A4 paper on which is typed “The achievements of this Government”, which he gives to residents. The following are extracts:
* EU – Another disaster, billions wasted in support of lost causes, human rights legislation ensures that this country harbours every sort of criminal known to man;
* Immigration – Another disaster and much more to come, blatant lies are put forward by this Government;
* Marriage – Finally attempting to do away with marriage ... is a travesty of what the broad mass of people in this country … desire in their lives.
The councillor concludes his unofficial party memo: “I do not think this is the best way to beat Ukip in 2015.” But would he consider following his MP, who he says he admires, into a new coalition with Nigel Farage’s party?
“No,” he says, “because Ukip is a one-man party. I like their principles very much but that’s because they are conservative principles which the funny, non-swivel eyed people have lost touch with. We cannot let that happen.”