First it was weeks, now it is days, soon it will be hours. Conservative candidates are counting down to 10pm on Thursday, December 12, the moment when polls close and most still think, privately, that the general election will be won.

Between now and then they are fighting to protect what they think they already have — which is enough support to keep Boris Johnson in Downing Street.

But this is the moment it could all go wrong for them. They remember what happened in 2017, when what seemed set to be a storming Tory success crumbled late in the campaign, and they are watching guardedly this time. 

The horror of the London Bridge attack and the fallout over terror laws could have an impact. The polls are tightening — might a surge in registration and a big youth vote on the day lift Labour and the Liberal Democrats?

Is the opposition’s attempt to focus on the NHS and the threat that it could form part of a trade deal with America cutting through? I’ve heard it raised on the doorstep. 

What about Boris Johnson’s character and the row over whether he will be interviewed by Andrew Neil? It probably only upsets those who dislike him already, but some voters have noticed.

Over the past few days I have watched Conservative candidates in three constituencies, and one thing stands out: the public are wary of promises and exhausted by what’s happened in Parliament over Brexit but, even so, people who open their doors are polite and think the election matters.

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A lot will turn out to vote, mostly without enthusiasm for the leaders of either of the two biggest parties. 

I started in north London streets where Jeremy Corbyn is so at home that one of them shares his surname. Pushing party leaflets through doors in the shadow of the Emirates Stadium, James Clark doesn’t have a hope of winning here as a Tory.

A scattering of Labour posters shows that Islington North has been voting for Corbyn as its MP for longer than Clark has been alive. 

James Clark is taking on Jeremy Corbyn in Islington North

The confident and talkative former soldier — he served as an infantry officer in Helmand Province, Afghanistan at 26 — came of age when David Cameron was shaping his party, and he mentions the Big Society with more fondness than Brexit.

“People say you are Tory scum and I tell them I’m not,” he says. 

Even so, with some Labour support locally slipping to the Liberal Democrats he might struggle even to hold the second place he won here in 2017.

A trip down the Victoria Line from Highbury to Pimlico and another Conservative would be devastated to come second. Nickie Aiken, the leader of Westminster council, is standing to be MP in the Cities of London and Westminster seat. It has been returning Tories since 1950 and, although Labour crept closer in 2017, she wouldn’t normally need to worry. 

This time, though, she is running for a party that wants to get Brexit done in a place that doesn’t want Brexit at all — and voted against it heavily in the referendum.

Nickie Aiken is standing in Cities of London and Westminster (Matt Writtle)

Against her stand not only Labour but a high-profile Lib Dem, the former Labour frontbencher Chuka Umunna, whose new party would love to snatch the seat despite winning only 11 per cent here last time.

Aiken, who keeps up a sense of no-nonsense practicality even as we struggle to find a route through the Lillington Gardens Estate, is the kind of candidate who reminds you that parts of the Conservative Party would still like to make its home in the centre ground of politics.

You can imagine her making her way to the Cabinet very rapidly if she wins and the slide to the right which has taken over the Tories is stopped. “In Westminster we have a very different Conservative Party, a very liberal Conservative Party,” she says. 

With her in charge, the council has declared a climate-change emergency and taken social housing back under direct council control. She says she wants new laws to help end rough sleeping and claims not to be worried by the party’s line on Brexit — even though as a Remainer she says she was “devastated” by the referendum result. 

The leaflet she hands out along with a large group of supporters — two of them government ministers — doesn’t mention Brexit at all. Nor does it have any reference to the Prime Minister or a picture of him. Even the name of her party is mentioned only once, at the bottom of the page.

“People say Boris Johnson has taken the party to the right,” she argues. “I just don’t see it.” Maybe. But in this constituency he’s not much of an asset, either. 

Instead she’s pushing the sort of practical, local message which could easily form the basis of a Lib Dem constituency campaign. The question is: will Remain voters trust her to stick to it, given a manifesto which rules out an extension of the Brexit transition agreement if a trade deal isn’t agreed next year?

“An element of Conservatives are voting Lib Dem because of Brexit,” she says, “but a lot of Labour voters are coming to us.”

On a wet afternoon on the estate there are occasional signs that might be right. “I thought you were Labour,” says one man, taking a leaflet. “I’m sick of them.”

Canvassing here is a reminder that a lot of politics is a hard grind, with many people not home and rain pouring down. The lift to the seventh floor jams under the weight of Tory activists crammed into it. 

What there isn’t is any sign that Umunna is leading a Lib Dem surge. Perhaps he is doing better in other parts of the constituency but if he stands a chance of winning it won’t be with votes from the Lillington Gardens Estate.

On a frosty afternoon I join a third Conservative candidate who is also watching carefully for any sense of his support sliding in the last few days of the contest. 

Lee Rowley is locally born, pro-Brexit and won North East Derbyshire in 2017, the first Tory to do so since 1931. In London, seats like these are sometimes talked of as if they are made up only of angry ex-miners in terraced houses, but many are more mixed than that. Here there are houses with electric gates as well as former pit villages. 

Knocking on doors in a council estate on the edge of a village with views over Sheffield, Tory support seems at least as strong as it was when Rowley won. People in six houses in a row say they are backing him. 

Many have already done so by post. “I was going to vote Brexit Party but now they don’t have a candidate,” one tells him. But as they talk, more worrying signs for the Tories crop up. There’s no warmth for the Prime Minister — “I’m not quite sure about Boris,” says one.  Some raise the topic of the NHS.

Even so, some seem keen on the Tories. Others are angry with everyone in politics, don’t want to vote and can’t understand why Brexit hasn’t been sorted. But Corbyn is a bigger deterrent. Rowley says that in the most Labour bits of the constituency it is “Corbyn first, Brexit second”. And that could be enough to keep Boris Johnson in power. 



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