The phone rings. ‘Hello David, another David here. David Cameron. I am on my way up and would like to call into your office to see you.’
Yes, the Crewe and Nantwich by-election campaign had definitely begun.
Right from that almost surreal moment, it was clear this was going to be no ordinary election for the Chronicle or the readers of our weekly paid-for editions. If every dog has its day, this was ours – better still, 16 days of media frenzy leading to a manic week and a vote the whole country would be watching.
If anyone doubts the power of local newspapers in representing and reaching their communities, David Cameron is not among them, and neither is Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, who visited two days later. Perhaps Gordon Brown harbours some reservations, but events in Crewe and Nantwich were to prove he had gravely, if not terminally, miscalculated.
In his phone call, Cameron announced: ‘We’re going to give this everything we’ve got’and, true to his word, he was in the Chronicle office within two hours armed with his kitchen sink to throw at the campaign along with every member of the shadow Cabinet.
Crewe is a busy town with an even busier station, but for a photocall you don’t want to be seen as passing through. So what better place for a location shot than outside the local newspaper office?
Cameron agreed – but then so did Labour. The first appearance of the national media en masse was, therefore, outside our office. But what set the news agenda for much of the campaign was the arrival of those Labour activists dressed in the best of Royal Ascot top hats and tails labelling Conservative candidate Edward Timpson a ‘toff”.
It made for a quick soundbite and a memorable ‘sightbite”, but it was also the point where it all went wrong for Labour’s campaign and where our reporting and that of the national media largely went their separate ways.
Stereotypes were writ large as a great deal of the national reporting centred on the reaction to the ‘toffs’jibe and the implicit label accompanying it that Crewe and Nantwich voters were largely the exploited ‘working class’shivering at the squire’s gate.
Our admiration was reserved for those who did find time to examine largely ignored local issues such as the decay of Crewe town centre, the burden of soaring council tax and the concerns about immigration in a town where 6,000 Poles have swollen the local labour force.
That said, we all doffed our hats – not toppers or cloth caps – to the Daily Express, which revealed Labour candidate’s Tamsin Dunwoody’s ‘mansion’was apparently no less grand than that of ‘Tory Boy’Timpson.
One of the things that irked so many Chronicle readers over the ‘toffs’national news thread was that the town’s biggest employer is luxury car-maker Bentley Motors. But that was rarely mentioned. Strange indeed, that New Labour spin doctors who set the hare running did not know how irritated local craftsmen proud of producing arguably Britain’s finest cars would be by the thought that if you can afford a Bentley you must be a toff.
In the days leading up to voting, it was at times almost comical to see Cabinet and shadow Cabinet ministers out on the streets, followed by reporters and photographers, desperately trying to find a voter to quiz – sometimes even unknowingly approaching each other for a quote.
I did it myself when I began to interview one ‘local’man on the street, only to find he was a junior Tory frontbencher. Increasingly, throughout the campaign, my time was swallowed up by reporters from the nationals, TV and radio interviewing me –â€‚which helped bring some of the best free publicity a local newspaper can have.
Secretly, of course, I loved it and so did the voters of Crewe and Nantwich. They rejoiced at being both the audience and most of the performers in a media circus that had come to town.
If they weren’t going to give the one man who never came, Gordon Brown, a pistol to shoot himself at the start of 16 days of the most reported by-election campaign in modern times, they were certainly going to at the end. It was too good a protest vote opportunity to miss.
Cameron, on his fifth and final visit, went for the soundbite: ‘We have seen the end of New Labour here on the streets of Crewe and Nantwich.’
What the Chronicle has just written could well be one of the longest local newspaper obituary reports in history.
Meanwhile, the phone rings again: ‘Gordon here, Gordon Brown.’You must be joking!