Anna Soubry is driving me through her constituency in a slightly alarming manner.
With one hand on the steering wheel and the other gesticulating towards some large detached houses to our right, while looking at me to her left, the Conservative defence minister is in full flow.
“Do you know which party the voters who live in those houses support?” she asks.
“Conservative,” I venture looking at the large drives and well-kept front gardens.
“Of course not – they’re Labour,” she berates me. “They think I eat babies for breakfast. They are appeasing their conscience because they have a bit of money.”
That’s the thing about Soubry. She doesn’t mince her words and those words are very quotable – and don’t often comply with the tightly regimented election script laid down by Conservative Central Office.
From Nigel Farage (“a man who looks like someone has put a finger up his bottom and he really rather likes it”) to her time as a health minister (“I didn’t go into politics to tell people how much salt to put on their chips”) Soubry is anything but a political automaton.
And that’s maybe why when I asked Conservative Central Office for an interview, they said she was unavailable.
But when I turn up uninvited at her campaign headquarters in the highly marginal constituency of Broxtowe on the day of a local election hustings, she is not only available but couldn’t be more welcoming.
Within minutes she is driving me through the Nottingham suburbs on the way to a community meeting in Stapleford. She may have a reputation for shooting from the hip but she “talks human”.
Soubry will need all the communication skills she can muster – with a majority of just 389 over Labour she is fighting for political survival. But what is strange (and independent constituency polling confirms it) is that Soubry is getting more support from the working class in Broxtowe, while Labour is picking up the middle-class vote.
Soubry is tremendously proud of this. Although, I say, it must make it hard when as a party you basically represent the interests of the better off.
“That’s rubbish. It’s nonsense. It’s an absolute myth,” she berates me again. “We are much more a party of individuals. Unfortunately we get stereotyped.
“People will meet me and say, you’re not really a Tory. And I’ll say I’ve been a Tory all my life – my politics have hardly changed. It is about making a society that is just and kinder to people. I’m an old feminist and member of the anti-Nazi league.”
She tells an amusing story of canvassing in the richer parts of Broxtowe and asking deliberately provocative questions. “You go and knock on their door and it comes out that you’re a Tory and they physically wince,” she says.
“‘We never vote Conservative,’ they say. I say ‘do you send your children to Round Hill Primary?’ (the local school).
“And they look a bit awkward and say: ‘Well, you see, our son had special difficulties so we had to send him to the High School in Nottingham (a private school attended by Ed Balls, amongst others) and once you’ve sent one it’s not fair on the others’.”
She gives a big throaty laugh before adding: “I went to a comprehensive – what do they know about the working class? All they know about the working class is when they come and tidy up their garden or clean their windows. Geez.”
In this weird parallel world, Soubry’s Labour opponent (and former MP until 2010) looks and sounds much more like a Conservative.
Nick Palmer is smartly turned out in suit and tie and is as cautious as Soubry is exuberant. If the polls are to be believed he is on course to win back his seat and has no intention of upsetting the horses.
He concedes that he is picking up more support from the middle classes. “There is a lot of idealism in Broxtowe,” he says. “There are a lot of people who’ve done well in life and want to share it.”
This class theme emerges again a little later when both candidates are questioned at a hustings at the parish church in Beeston. Amazingly, around 400 voters are packed in with Bob the vicar working the roving mike.
At one stage Soubry comes under attack from Palmer and some in the audience for suggesting that claiming benefits can be a “horrible and shameful experience”.
“Shame, shame,” a couple of people shout while Palmer tells her: “I do not think it is acceptable to say that people claiming job seekers allowance is shameful.”
But Soubry comes back all guns blazing and appears genuinely angry – highlighting the fact that Palmer claimed unemployment benefit himself as an “experiment” after being voted out in 2010.
“Just a minute – people like my father found (claiming benefits) one of the most distressing experiences of his life,” she tells him.
“It is very easy for middle class people who come from moneyed backgrounds not to understand what it’s like for people when they first go down to the dole office because they’ve lost their jobs.”
Unfortunately for Soubry, if the polls are to be believed, it is likely to be her who will have to find alternative employment.
The Independent has got together with May2015.com to produce a poll of polls that produces the most up-to-date data in as close to real time as is possible.
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