Beyond the bubble

Drinkers in the Red Lion, Westminster

With party leaders hammering out a coalition deal, Westminster was abuzz. But outside the bubble, did the rest of the country share the political class’ fascination?

On College Green, opposite the Houses of Parliament, the journalists and politicians in their makeshift studios had long ago stopped pretending to contain their excitement: the maelstrom of anticipation was building as a coalition between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats loomed closer.

The Palace of Westminster as seen from the Peabody estate

But barely five minutes stroll from here, within the sound of Big Ben’s chimes, were people resigned to the fact that the process of choosing the next prime minister had, in its final stage, nothing to do with them.

On the Peabody estate, a neat complex of housing association flats between Westminster and the gleaming civil service offices of Victoria Street, there were no leftover election posters hanging above the bright window boxes.

In the cafes and greasy spoons surrounding the tenement buildings, life went on. It was the sound of LBC, a commercial London broadcaster, and Radio 1 that provided the background hum, not the latest breathless updates from political correspondents.

There may have been smart apartments nearby, furnished at the taxpayer’s expense. But for ordinary people working within sight of the Palace of Westminster, these neighbours may as well live on the Moon.

Stuart Newman, 39, pointed at a window overlooking his market stall on Strutton Ground. An MP lived in there, Stuart remarked. He may not have been able to recall the politician’s name, but he knew from reading the papers that the honourable member had claimed £400 a week for food on expenses.

As for the twin sets of negotiations still taking place down the road, all Stuart could do was shrug. He had his stall to worry about: the credit crunch had hit demand for his mobile phone accessories and electrical goods badly, as the office workers who made up most of his clientele held onto their cash.

"We seem to be getting by without a government, don’t we?" he smiled ruefully. "Maybe we don’t need one after all."

If the machinations of the county’s leaders seemed remote here, just yards from the Westminster village, you did not have to travel far to find a community to whom they appeared utterly alien.

Pizza leaflets

Nestled on the fringes of the M25, Watford has become convenient shorthand for the demarcation between metropolitan and provincial Britain.

Residential street in Watford

Just days previously, the Hertfordshire town was of crucial importance to the political caste. A three-way marginal, this was one of the seats that both main parties were told they would have to win if they were to form a government.

During the election, all three party leaders visited the town. Nick Clegg even launched the Lib Dems’ campaign here.

In the end, the voters chose Conservative candidate Richard Harrington. But the decision on who would form a government was soon taken out of Watford’s hands.

The town seemed to have decided to block out the election like a bad memory. In The Oddfellows pub, lunchtime drinkers muttered into their pints about the mediocre form of Watford FC, not the relative merits of a "progressive alliance" versus a Conservative-Lib Dem pact.

Along the Victorian and Edwardian residential streets surrounding the town centre, the only leaflets being delivered were for a local pizza restaurant.

The Conservatives had an office at the far end of Watford’s High Street. But otherwise, in a town so recently bombarded with election propaganda, the sudden absence of party colours adorning windows and lamp-posts was strangely unsettling.

But it was not difficult to understand. When asked about the haggling 20 miles away in Westminster, most residents – those that did not simply shake their heads and walk away, at least – hardly bothered to conceal their contempt for the process.

Take 53-year-old Carol Smith, a childcare worker at an after-school club who has lived in Watford since 1991. Her vote has swung left and right over the years in this weathervane seat.

On Thursday, because she wanted a strong leader to guide the country out of recession, she voted Conservative.

But she couldn’t understand why, when plurality in Watford and the country as a whole joined her, the political complexion of the next government remained unresolved. Next time, she is tempted not to bother.

Last poster standing

"The Conservatives got the most seats," she said, incredulous. "How on earth can the prime minister not be a Tory?"

And it was not just the blue part of Watford which was unhappy. Financial adviser Manoj Gondhia, 48, had stuck with Labour. But the uncertainty of the parliamentary arithmetic had left him frightened.

Watford High Street

"I tell you what’s going to happen, with all this…" he struggled to find the word. "This chaos. It’s going to be a disaster. It’s going to be like Greece."

For the most part, however, it appeared that Watford had lost patience and switched off.

The big screen TVs in the pubs were pointedly tuned away from the 24-hour news channels. Most afternoon shoppers greeted questions about the coalition talks with a grimace or a shrug.

At last, however, the BBC found an election poster still proudly on display. In Cafe Toast on the High Street, a handbill for Richard Harrington defiantly remained stuck to the door.

Owner Adam Akbari, 28, was praying a change in leadership would give his business a much-needed boost, but did not want to tempt fate by removing it before a government was finally formed.

Not that he had much enthusiasm for politics of any description at this time.

"Trade’s gone right down since the result," he complained. "Everyone’s worried. No-one wants to spend their money yet.

"When I bought this place five years ago, there wasn’t a single empty shop along this road. Now you count them as you walk along. How’s all this infighting going to help?"

Across the street, a derelict branch of Woolworth’s loomed. Back in Westminster, the politicians and pundits were preparing to herald a new era.

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