POLITICS
03/12/2019 22:30 GMT | Updated 03/12/2019 23:41 GMT

Marmite Boris Johnson's Election Campaign Goes Down 'To The Wire'

HuffPost UK joins the campaign trail as the PM relaxes with quadratic equations and maintains the energy of a 'butcher's dog' despite the chaos and jitters around him.

“Get it done!”

“Shame on you, Boris!”

“Keep up the good work!”

“Tell me how many children you’ve got!”

These are just some of the shouts of support and angry heckles aimed at Boris Johnson as he causes mobbed chaos in Salisbury’s Christmas market.

Undeniably, the reaction is mainly positive – but then you would expect that in a Tory safe seat.

And the heckles show that even in a city he has championed since the Skripal poisonings, the prime minister remains something of a Marmite figure.

On the eve of the Nato summit, he should be in the perfect place to pile the pressure on Jeremy Corbyn, who is trailing a fair distance in most polls and is perceived to be weak on security.

But in a divided country with a volatile electorate like this, Johnson is uncertain of his position even with the Tories predicted to win a massive majority on December 12. 

“This election is going to go to the wire,” he tells reporters in Salisbury.

“It’s very important everyone recognises the starkness of the choice.”

Of course, it suits Johnson to talk up the closeness of the election. 

After last week’s YouGov seat-by-seat MRP poll predicted a 68-seat majority for Johnson, Tory staffers have had serious jitters about ex-Labour Leave voters staying at home because they think the party will win without their votes. 

The PM echoes this.

“There are nine days to go,” he says. “It is a very, very tight election and the choice is critical.”

PA Wire/PA Images
Johnson at a stall selling Turkish delight during a walkabout at Salisbury Christmas market

Johnson is speaking at the Entrain Space veterans’ campus in Wilton, near Salisbury, where the media arrives on a convoy of two Tory battle buses, followed by the PM in his own car.

The “regulars”, including a wire reporter and broadcasters, get the plusher, bigger, kitchenette-equipped bus emblazoned with “Get Brexit Done” advertising, while lobby hack day-trippers follow in a smaller version.

We set off from London at a classically ludicrous election hour with the Today programme playing over the bus stereo, in which Dominic Raab confirms what bleary-eyed hacks already knew – that Johnson will not meet Donald Trump at the Nato summit.

The unpopular US president’s visit is seen as one of Johnson’s last remaining obstacles, along with Friday’s TV debate against Corbyn, to navigate without a hitch if he is to ride to victory on polling day.

Just before we arrive in Salisbury, Trump gives Johnson exactly what he doesn’t need – an endorsement as a “very capable” leader who will “do a good job”. 

Johnson downplays it: “It’s very important for the prime minister of the United Kingdom to have good relationships with the president of the United States – that’s just a geopolitical, geo-strategic fact.

“Just as I think it’s very important for us to have the Elysee, the Kanzleramt and everywhere else.”

You know there’s an election on when the passing sight of Stonehenge gives one of Johnson’s aides an opportunity to attack Labour.

A tunnel has been mooted to go under the monument for years without being built, and the aide points out that Labour’s plans to “penalise white van man to help wealthy commuters” by diverting funds from road to rail probably means it will never happen should Corbyn win.

When we arrive, Salisbury plain, on which Stonehenge stands, takes on a different significance. 

He really does care and he wants to hear your story

One of the veterans Johnson visits, 46-year-old James Gammer, was living on it in tents and caravans for two years before eventually being forced to move into his car by a knee injury that left him out of work.

The bearded former RAF air frame mechanic, who moved into the veterans centre with 18 year-old daughter Daisy and seven year-old dog Rue just over a week ago, is also no fan of Labour, saying Corbyn is “not resonating”.

Johnson, on the other hand, is “on a grand level”.

“He really does care and he wants to hear your story,” says Gammer after meeting the PM.

“I sort of liked him before he came, because he’s kind of one of the boys, he’s got mud on his suits and his trousers.”

It’s perhaps this image that inspired another veteran, Paul O’Rourke, to voice a somewhat different view.

After chatting to him through the window of his room, Johnson began to walk away only to be told: “You’ve got dandruff.”

The PM brushes off the comment, and his jacket: “I’ve got to watch out for that – thank you.”

O’Rourke, who served in the Royal Irish Rangers, then shrugs: “Someone had to say something.”

Later, the PM visits Salisbury Christmas market as part of the government’s ongoing attempts to reignite the city’s reputation as a tourism destination, which took a hit after the Russian chemical attack.

It is here where Johnson the campaigner – kept away from much of the media for large parts of the pre-election period – is in full flow.

He arrives to a mixture of applause from surprised onlookers and heckles, including from Joyce Smale, who accuses him of “ruining the country”.

The woman describes herself as an “ardent Remainer” who switched from the Tories to Labour following the Brexit vote in 2016 – exactly the sort of voter Johnson lost when he led Vote Leave.

Undeterred, Johnson continues to bound through the market, visiting a butcher and a Turkish delight stall – “my ancestors come from Turkey” – and gets mobbed all along the way.

At various points amid the chaos and melee, one woman says with delight to her friend: “You got a handshake,” a man remarks: “He’s a very popular man but I can’t think why,” and another flat-cap wearing man shouts: “Keep up the good work,” while clutching a giant kebab.

Is it not tiring for Johnson? Is he knackered? Apparently not. 

“I’m like a steel spring – I’m as fit as a butcher’s dog,” the PM says. 

“I’m like a coiled spring.”

Asked what he was doing to relax, he jokes: “Apart from a few quadratic equations and reading pre-socratic philosophy...” 

Perhaps it is the one shout heard more than most on his walkabout that keeps him going: “Get Brexit done.”