Set incongruously amid an assortment of modern, glass-fronted office blocks, the Crown and Treaty pub does its best to conceal its momentous role in our nation’s history. For a start, it’s not currently trading and is shrouded in scaffolding. And most people seem to pass by without affording it a second glance. Yet, nearly four centuries ago, this handsome Grade II* listed building just happened to be the setting for a power struggle that would ultimately serve to determine the future of England itself.
It was here, in 1645, that representatives of King Charles I and his enemies among parliamentarians sought to hammer out a settlement to the English Civil War. The prospective Treaty of Uxbridge contained proposals that would see the king remain in power – though with his authority over the church, military and Ireland fettered. The wranglings lasted for just over three weeks. But, buoyed by recent military victories, the king saw no reason to give ground, so the talks floundered and the draft treaty went unsigned.
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Taking a dollop of satirical licence, and if you just substitute the current prime minister (who also happens to be the MP for these parts) for the monarch, it’s not much of a leap to see parallels with the political situation in Britain today.
Will Boris Johnson, emboldened by his own recent election success, show the same bravado as the old king in facing down recalcitrant MPs determined to prevent him from delivering Brexit? Will he go so far as to prorogue parliament if they obstruct him – just as Charles himself did in 1628 in a squabble over customs duties? Will he threaten to cling to power even if MPs express no confidence in his administration, thereby potentially forcing the real monarch to intervene? Johnson’s “Do or die” rhetoric of past weeks suggests he may do any of these things.
The constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, created in 2010 out of the old Uxbridge seat, was once deemed safe, if not rock-solid, Conservative territory. Between its two incarnations, it has returned a Tory at every general election since 1970. But things are suddenly less comfortable for the Tories here. In 2017, the seat saw a 13.6% swing to Labour and Johnson’s majority halved to just over 5,000 – the smallest for any prime minister since 1924. Labour needs only a 5.4% swing to win next time out, and is going all out to achieve it.
To add to the Tories’ woes, a recent report by the centre-right think tank Onward described the seat as ‘vulnerable’ because of its ratio of younger voters to older voters (the place is home to Brunel and Buckinghamshire New universities). Increases in the local ethnic minority population are likely to squeeze their vote further.
Wandering around Uxbridge and South Ruislip, however, it is difficult to see it as anything other than middle-class suburbia: semi-detached and terraced 1930s houses with bay windows set along pleasant tree-lined avenues with well-tended grass verges – the type of place the London media is prone to forget even forms part of the metropolis. The denizens of these neighbourhoods are what some people might describe as ‘gammon’: mainly white, often of more mature years and well-to-do, and imbued with those small ‘c’ conservative attitudes that seem to provoke such ire in your modern-day liberal. There are pockets of a more gritty and working-class persuasion – the odd one-time council estate muscling its way in at the margins of the constituency.
It’s sort of Terry and June, but with Wolfie Smith lodging in a back room.
The number of benefits claimants is significantly lower than the average across the UK, and the high street seems, unlike many across Britain today, to bustle with activity and trade. Resistance to HS2 and a third runway at Heathrow – both of which will impact on the constituency fundamentally – is widespread, with many residents mildly irritated that their MP’s own opposition has been less than unequivocal. In fact, chatting to people here, it is obvious that the new prime minister cuts as divisive a figure locally as he does across the country.
Thomas Moulstone is sitting outside Debenhams. “I quite like Boris’s ideas, but he’s a bit of a slob,” he says. He is a youthful 91 years old and has lived in Uxbridge all his life. “When you’re the prime minister, you should be smart.” As a former RAF serviceman, Thomas is probably inclined to take a dim view of anyone who dresses with anything less than crisp perfection. Perhaps surprisingly, he used to veer towards Labour, but has lost faith in the party over recent years. He sees Johnson as a careerist, though. “I’ve never seen him around here. It’s like he’s using this place as a stepping stone to bigger things.”
Thomas voted Leave and is frustrated at the failure to deliver Brexit. “The whole thing needs sorting out. Quickly.” I ask if the prospect of no-deal concerns him. “Not much point in worrying about anything at my time of life,” he retorts. A clear majority in the constituency voted for Brexit, though a YouGov poll last year indicated that voters here had switched to Remain.
“I think there should be a second referendum,” a local job centre worker, Ben Mabadeje, 30, tells me. He voted Remain. “I don’t see how we’ll survive outside the EU.”
His family, originally from Nigeria, have always supported Labour, but Ben says he might be prepared to give Johnson a chance. “I like his idea of an amnesty for migrants. We need the resources of these workers, even if they came here illegally in the first place. So I think Boris is right on that one.” He pauses. “Although he’s a shit local MP. Doesn’t do enough around here.”
The Tories are determined to ensure that Johnson does not become their first party leader since Arthur Balfour in 1906 to lose his seat. They will no doubt throw everything into protecting their star player. For its part, Labour has been co-ordinating a series of “Unseat Boris Johnson” days, and the grassroots organisation Momentum has promised to flood the place with activists.
The party’s twentysomething candidate, Ali Milani, has been making waves. His backstory – a local lad who arrived in the UK as an immigrant from Iran aged five and was brought up by a single mother on a council estate – will undoubtedly appeal to all those hostile to the Eton and Oxford elitism embodied by Johnson. But the odds must still be against a Labour gain here.
That said, given the age of unpredictability through which we are living, there is no longer such a thing as a political certainty. And if Johnson chooses or is forced to call a general election before having delivered Brexit, anything becomes possible. At the European elections earlier this year, the Brexit Party took an estimated 30% of the vote across the constituency, so it’s not hard to see how Johnson’s vote might end up being squeezed between pro- and anti-Brexit forces.
I sense, however, that, for the moment at least, Uxbridge and South Ruislip is prepared to stick by Johnson and give him the chance to prove himself as prime minister. “Politics is a total mess. Someone needs to sort it out,” says Tracey Spencer, 47, who is shopping with her daughter. “Boris can’t do any worse than the others. I don’t mind him. He seems to be pretty normal. I mean, he’s sometimes a twat, but he doesn’t mind looking a twat, if you know what I mean.”
I find it difficult upon hearing these affirmations of support for Johnson to set aside my own personal antipathy for the man. I was at war with him five years ago when, while mayor of the capital, he imposed the most savage cuts on the London Fire Brigade in its history – and can’t quite bring myself to understand what others might see in him. I have always seen his bumbling, blundering persona as a cynical act – a diversionary tactic designed to deflect attention from his neoliberal, Thatcherite politics – the type that wouldn’t be welcome across large parts of London.
Past colleagues of Johnson’s have testified to this contrivance – most notably Simon Heffer who, in an excoriating piece written a decade ago, said the act was ‘finely-wrought’. Rejecting any notion that Johnson was a ‘buffoon’, Heffer wrote: “The act is calculated, and it has required serious application and timing of the sort of which only a clever man is capable.”
Until now, the act has worked. But whether Johnson can carry it off in the ultimate role, where statesmanship and gravitas are demanded, remains to be seen. I suspect that many of the more old-fashioned Tory voters in Uxbridge and South Ruislip quietly disapprove of Johnson’s clownishness, his air of arrogance and messy private life – but are prepared to overlook these as the price for having what they consider to be the right man in place to sort out a national crisis.
In truth, it is hard to see Johnson being decapitated here. His apparently infrequent trips to the constituency suggest that he is confident he has the voters of Uxbridge and South Ruislip on his side. And his bullishness on the national stage suggests he is equally convinced he has a majority of the nation on board as the Brexit saga reaches its apparent denouement.
But, then, Charles I was probably infused with the same air of self-assurance when ordering his commissioners to abandon negotiations with parliamentary leaders at the Crown and Treaty pub. And look what happened to him.