cameron in cumbria
The last time David Cameron came to Penrith and the Border, it was 48 hours before the 2010 election. Just before eleven o’clock, I was outside the Border Cod in Longtown. And then, in an instant, young special advisers were spilling from hire cars; plain-clothes policeman materialised behind bus-stops, ear-pieces crackling; and a giant purple ‘battle bus’ hove into view. Cameron came out into an explosion of camera flashes, weaving between tripods and microphones. We managed three sentences before he had collected his cod and worked his way back through the press and onto the bus, leaving me, and the gathering Longtown crowd, gazing at the high dark windows of the coach. I tried to talk to a group that came out of the Graham Arms. “We don’t want to talk to you”, they said. “We want to talk to him.” Since then, I’ve been trying to get him back for longer.
Our problems in Cumbria are the problems of his constituency writ large. He has 400 square miles and 100 villages; we have 1200 square miles and 200 villages. His is the largest constituency in the South: ours, the largest in England. He has been campaigning to save his village’s pub, pushing for faster rural broadband, and – notoriously – to implement more ‘Big Society’ initiatives. All of which – I keep telling him in speeches, in formal requests, and what seem innumerable conversations over cheese straws from Liverpool to Number 10 – means that he needs to see Penrith and the Border.
Last week, I reminded his Chief of Staff that Crosby Ravensworth had laid the foundation of the new affordable houses, and that the refurbished Butchers Arms (which hundreds of us had banded together to buy) was about to be finished this Wednesday. But the PM was dealing with the riots, and he has 650 other constituencies to think about. So I was surprised this Monday (when I had taken the opportunity of parliamentary recess to make a short trip to Washington DC, for a meeting with the US government) to get an e-mail in which the PM wondered whether he might turn up in Crosby in two days’ time. He wanted to be there for the opening of the pub, hear about the affordable housing, visit the new National Citizen Service pilot at the Outward Bound centre at Howtown, see Carlisle and, if he could, stay overnight and fit in a swim in Ullswater. I cancelled my meetings, booked a new flight and picked up the phone to Crosby Ravensworth, and Catherine, in the office, worked through the night to arrange all the visits.
I was not allowed – for security reasons – to tell anyone that the Prime Minister was coming. When I suggested to Joan that ‘a senior visitor’ might stop by on Wednesday, I heard that everyone from Crosby was due to be at a race meet at Carlisle. And when I wondered if the senior visitor could open the pub, David said, “Absolutely not: it’s a community project, and will be opened by the community. I don’t give a monkey’s who the visitor is. I don’t care if it’s the Prime Minister.” I drove straight from my last New York meeting to the airport, flew through the night, raced to Euston, just made the train to Oxenholme, and arrived in Crosby, still in my crumpled suit, ten minutes before the PM. David and the others from Crosby – kind to me as always with another last minute request – had turned up, with a ploughman’s lunch made by the Crosby Ravensworth Food Alliance. While the PM focused on his plum pie – he said he had failed “disastrously” to make plum pie that weekend – Libby told him about digging broadband trenches in Mallerstang, David explained how the community had begun 22 affordable houses across the road, Tom described the new neighbourhood plan for Upper Eden, and Cameron and Kitty explained how we had put together almost £300,000 to buy the pub. Gordon Nicolson unveiled his new housing plans, and showed how Eden District council had cut its deficit.
I saw the visit as a way of thanking the Prime Minister. These projects had come about because he had backed our bids to be national pilots. We won support for neighbourhood planning, housing and the pub because he made us a Big Society vanguard. Then as “a broadband pilot”, we had received more money per head for broadband than almost any county in England; and finally we had been made the pilot for National Citizen Service – which is why he and I built and launched a raft with students on Ullswater later that afternoon. This was his chance to actually see what he had supported: to meet the people, to look at the foundation stones, smell the fresh paint, and grasp how much had been achieved in a year, and how.
I don’t think he’ll forget David’s short speech: “I just wanted to remind you: you’re not opening the pub but we’ll let you open the bar”; nor will he forget standing with me up to our knees in Ullswater, hoping that our ‘lorryman’s hitch’ was going to hold the raft together and stop the children falling into the lake. I won’t forget his focus on the detail of the projects, or his smile as he looked across at Hellvellyn in the afternoon light. And I’m confident that, next time I assail him over a cheese straw, he won’t forget Cumbria.