Steve isn’t happy. South-East London’s builder is concerned about our borders, and the possibility of a new lockdown. 

‘We’re a great country,’ he tells me, ‘but we keep selling ourselves short. We just need to get our heads down and get on with it.’

I’ve come to Old Bexley and Sidcup, for the by-election caused by the death of former Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire. 

A normally rock-solid Conservative seat, I’ve been told Tory high command is becoming increasingly nervous that a combination of sleaze, the migrant crisis and disillusionment with Boris could see their 18,952 majority cut dramatically.

According to Reform Party sources, discussions have been held between Tice and former actor Laurence Fox over the formation of an electoral pact between Reform and Fox¿s own anti-woke, free-speech party Reclaim. And last week rumours began to circulate that Farage could be about to make another of his regular returns to frontline politics

According to Reform Party sources, discussions have been held between Tice and former actor Laurence Fox over the formation of an electoral pact between Reform and Fox’s own anti-woke, free-speech party Reclaim. Last week, rumours started to circulate that Farage may be making another return to frontline political politics.

As Steve takes another bite of his bacon roll, I wait for the lifelong Tory voter – who is still suffering from the effects of long Covid – to explain how his Government and Prime Minister have let him down. He doesn’t. ‘It’s easy for people to criticise him. Boris did spend a lot to try and protect the people in the pandemic. I think he’s doing OK,’ he says.

David runs a clothing shop a little further from picturesque Bexley Village. And it seems I’ve found one of those voters Conservative Central Office is so concerned about.

‘Boris?’ he rolls his eyes. ‘He’s a joke. He’s an embarrassment. It’s embarrassing for him to lose his place before an important audience. Imagine Margaret Thatcher doing the same thing. Or Ted Heath?’

This seat was held by Labour in 2019. So these words will be music to Sir Keir Starmer’s ears. However, the music stops abruptly. 

‘This is the worst government ever,’ David adds. ‘The only problem is their opponents are even worse.’

Labour is downplaying their expectations. Starmer hasn’t visited the constituency to support his candidate, local councillor Daniel Francis, and I’m told has no plans to.

Richard Tice, the leader of Reform Party is optimistic about making this a success. As he strides energetically up and down the driveways of the large semis lining Hurst Road, Tice claims Boris ‘has become a real liability’ on the doorsteps. ‘It’s extraordinary,’ he says. ‘You’ve got lifelong Tories saying they’re not voting again until he’s gone.’

A bit further down picturesque Bexley Village, I get talking to David, who runs a clothes shop. And it seems I¿ve found one of those voters Conservative Central Office is so concerned about. ¿Boris?¿ he rolls his eyes. ¿He¿s a joke. He¿s an embarrassment. Losing his place in a speech to an audience as important as that. Can you imagine Margaret Thatcher doing it? Or Ted Heath?¿

David runs a clothing shop a little further from picturesque Bexley Village. And it seems I’ve found one of those voters Conservative Central Office is so concerned about. ‘Boris?’ he rolls his eyes. ‘He’s a joke. He’s an embarrassment. It’s embarrassing for him to lose his place before an important audience. Imagine Margaret Thatcher doing the same thing. Or Ted Heath?’

They might vote for former Brexit Party Chairman and his band of insurgents. The first few doors he knocks on don’t look especially hopeful. 

One woman is just too busy talking. She is passionate Remainer. Her neighbor is her neighbour. Another thinks he’s going to vote Tory but before Tice can try to dissuade him, his son angrily shouts: ‘Can you leave my father alone!’

Graham and Susan then open up the next door. They explain they’ve voted Conservative in the past but not this time. ‘We need drastic change,’ Susan says. ‘All we get is flip-flop. And Boris is just part of the elite.’

This is the antipathy I’d been warned to expect. One Tory MP who had been canvassing here told me: ‘It’s bad. The only issue that’s coming up on the doorstep are the Channel crossings.’

A Minister was even more blunt: ‘A lot of our voters down there think Boris has lost the plot.’

Louie French (ex-deputy leader of Bexley Council) is the person responsible for helping Prime Minister to relocate the plot. Unfortunately – and in keeping with recent Conservative campaign strategy – French is being kept safely away from the media, not to mention some of his potential voters.

‘James Brokenshire was liked around here,’ says Sharon, who runs the local tea shop. ‘If you contacted him he’d always respond. Louie did not respond to me. Nothing.’

Is that going to stop her from voting Tory Thursday? ‘No. Boris is doing a very good job. He’s done his best. He couldn’t have been expected to see Covid coming, could he?’

Was there any concern about the Peppa Pig scandal? Accusations that he’s losing his grip? ‘He makes me laugh. That’s what we need. This is what I love. He reminds me of his Spitting Image puppet.’

Notoriously, by-elections can be anarchic events in politics. After spending some time wandering through Old Bexley or Sidcup, however, it is clear that there are some important things. No matter what their concerns may be, most people seem to have no choice but to support Boris. 

Brokenshire’s strong local affection is supporting the Conservative vote. Starmer and Labour, regardless of the movement in national polls may not be being taken seriously.

Boris still has a chance. This is in Tice’s strategy. ‘What we’re trying to do is set off a domino effect,’ he told me.

‘We don’t have to win, we just need to make a breakthrough. This will enable us to carry that momentum into North Shropshire’s by-election. We then take this momentum to the next year’s local elections. And then we’re away.’

Tice’s question is, how can he force the initial domino to fall? He has certainly professionalised his party’s operation. It was common for canvassing with Ukip or the Brexit Party to turn into extended pub crawls. 

The leaflet, a 20-page glossy booklet, was distributed to all addresses in each constituency. A high-tech mobile app from the United States now manages door-knocking.

Tice doesn’t have the charisma and enthusiasm of true populists. Although his positions are well-thought out and articulated, they lack passion. His positions are well-thought out and articulated, but he lacks the passion that helped Nigel Farage win in the Euro elections 2014.

This could be changing. According to Reform Party sources, discussions have been held between Tice and former actor Laurence Fox over the formation of an electoral pact between Reform and Fox’s own anti-woke, free-speech party Reclaim. 

Last week, rumours started to circulate that Farage may be making another regular return to frontline politics.

It is this terrifying image that haunts marginal Tory MPs’ nightmares. Someone shouts ‘Brexiteers Assemble!’ and the disparate group of Right-wing showmen currently circulating the political fringes unite and pool their superpowers.

As Tice told me: ‘What Boris and the Tories are terrified of is a pincer movement. You’d have Starmer’s Labour and the Greens on the Left. Reform is attacking from the right.

‘We’re going to be running 600 MPs against the Tories at the next Election. And we won’t be standing a single one down in the way we did last time.’

Tice must have his Bexley breakthrough in order for that pincer movement. It’s possible. 

Ukip finished third in 2015 with 300 votes less than Labour. With Sir Keir’s flatlining, the disillusioned Tories have no other choice but to move.

From what I saw and heard, the voters of Old Bexley and Sidcup look as if they might just be prepared to overlook Boris’s recent blundering. But if they don’t, Richard Tice and the anti-woke avengers are waiting to pounce.