In the lovely town of Ampthill stands a handsome Town Pump, “erected by the Earl of Upper Ossory A.D.1785”, and inscribed with the distances to Woburn, seven miles, Bedford, eight miles, Dunstable, 12 miles, and London, 45 miles.
Ossory, an Irish peer, served as MP for Bedfordshire from 1767-1794, and is commemorated in Ampthill Parish Church by a marble pillar which he is said to have acquired in Rome, and which bears an inscription of which the first four lines were written by himself:
Though Ossory sleeps beneath some other stone,
These lines record him, where his heart was known.
His was a smile that spoke a mind at ease,
A native taste, that never failed to please:
Just tho’ indulgent, cautious yet sincere,
Long shall he live in all our memories here.
Ossory’s latest successor, Nadine Dorries – MP for Mid Bedfordshire from 2005 until last month she precipitated the present by-election by submitting the longest and angriest resignation letter in modern times – will also live in the memories of her constituents.
And although she has attracted fierce criticism, it is not universal. The first couple ConHome happened to meet, Kelvin and Myra Horton, were drinking coffee outside the Surfin coffee shop, a few yards from the Town Pump.
“Well we do know Nadine quite well,” Kelvin said. “She was a very good member when she started out here. She used to run coffee mornings in the Queen’s Head.
“And she was very good at answering the shit people get these days. Then she had a problem. She had a stalker who frightened her.”
“I like Nadine,” Myra, a retired teacher, said. “We’ve met her a few times and she’s very easy to talk to.”
“If she thinks you’re barking up the wrong tree, she’ll tell you,” Kelvin agreed.
He is a retired metallurgist and patent agent, and Town Crier of Ampthill, an office he first filled for the 800th anniversary celebrations of its Market, founded in 1219.
Will he vote Conservative in the by-election?
“Oh yes,” he said, “the family’s voted Conservative for 150 years.”
“Not my side of the family,” Myra said in a mild tone. “My Dad was staunch Labour.” She too votes Labour.
“I’m not obsessive about politics,” Kelvin said. “I’m only interested in the result.”
“What will it be?” ConHome wondered.
“No idea. Anybody could get it.”
“Well perhaps not quite anybody,” Myra said.
At the 2019 general election, Dorries received 38,692 votes, Labour 14,028 and the Liberal Democrat 8,171.
“Who do you think will win?” ConHome asked.
Myra puffed out her cheeks and thought for a long time. “I would say the Tories,” she replied.
“I think you’re right there,” Kelvin said.
Inside the coffee shop, a history teacher said: “I couldn’t have voted for Nadine Dorries if you paid me because I think she was an obscenity and did the Conservatives no good at all.
“She didn’t represent anybody but herself. I’m glad she’s gone away, I think the majority of people felt that.
“I’ve looked at the polling and it’s so tight, I’ve seen all three parties claim they can win.” In a poll published on Sunday by The Observer, the Conservatives and Labour are both on 29 per cent, with the Lib Dems on 22 per cent.
But those figures exclude many voters who have not made up their minds, or refuse to say who they will support.
“I like Festus,” the teacher went on. “He’s a good guy, I had a chat in here with him for about 40 minutes. I’d like to sit and have a chat with both the other candidates. I’d vote Labour if the person was right.”
Festus Akinbusoye, the Conservative candidate, who has served since 2021 as Police and Crime Commissioner for Bedfordshire, is being challenged by Alistair Strathern, for Labour, and Emma Holland-Lindsay, for the Lib Dems.
The teacher is pro-Festus but anti-Conservative: “I’d like to kick several of them right down the road. Rishi’s not a leader, is he? He wants to be friends with everybody.
“I think going through the whole Conservative Party until you get the right one to be leader is bad practice. It’s like having a football team and not knowing who the captain is.”
But he is unconvinced by Sir Keir Starmer, to whom he applied a line by Bob Dylan: “Sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace.” He warned that Ampthill is “a middle-class bubble” and said Flitwick, just down the road, “is a different world”.
A young woman who was having lunch with a friend said of Akinbusoye, whom she was able to name: “I’ve met him, I had an awards night at my school last year and he came and spoke at that. He’s very in touch with the police.
“He kind of just spoke a lot. He spoke for half an hour but could have said it in ten minutes. That’s just politics. They just talk a lot. He was lovely. He shook everybody’s hand. He seems nice.”
Across the road in the White Hart, a young woman with a baby said: “I’m glad the by-election is happening. It’s been a long time coming. I think Bedfordshire is ready for some change.
“I’ll be voting Lib Dem. For some time I was voting Conservative, for example at the last general election. That seems so long ago. So much has changed in the last four years. I work for an insolvency business and we’re extraordinarily busy at the moment.”
Another mother with a small baby, who usually works for a large accountancy firm in London, said: “I’m not a fan of Nadine. There’s no lift at Flitwick Station [the nearest to Ampthill]. She should have sorted that.
“I will be voting Lib Dem, for Emma. And I know one of the things she will be advocating for is dental care, because it is incredibly difficult to get a dentist. It is appalling.
“I think the Tories are an absolute disgrace. I did see their candidate, I saw him at Flitwick Station.”
In a more down-market pub, which asked not to be named, a local business proprietor said: “Nadine was absent, ineffective and had no credibility.
“She’s useless. No, not actually useless, she’s sinful. To accept her parliamentary wage packet without actually performing her duties is sinful.
“I sent an email to Nadine during Covid. The reply was that she’d reply within three weeks. She didn’t reply.
“You could stand a f***ing moron in a blue rosette and they’d still get in round here. They don’t give a flying f***. I don’t trust any party.
“If an Independent came to me and gave me a serious economic policy I might like to vote for him. Unfortunately an Independent wouldn’t have any allies so he wouldn’t be able to do anything. So it’s pissing against the wind.
“I think the Conservatives will win. It’s more of an age demographic that will push them through.”
A handyman said: “I wouldn’t know who to vote for. I don’t trust any of them as far as I could throw them. There’s a lot of apathy about it, to be honest.
“People just can’t be bothered. They’ve got more important things to think about than politics.
“The politicians don’t do anything for round here. She was too busy doing television shows, and deciding when to resign.
“I’ve had somebody round from Labour and somebody round from the Lib Dems, but I’ve not seen the Conservative one. They’re not interested in round here. They just line their own pockets. They get voted in and they get £80,000 a year. A lot more than ordinary people get.”
Several people mentioned Gareth Mackey, a former Conservative who is standing as an Independent in the by-election and now chairs the Independent group on Central Bedfordshire Council, where in May the Independents replaced the Conservatives as the largest group.
But no one seemed to believe in him enough to vote for him. Nor is there any discernible bandwagon rolling for either Labour or the Lib Dems. At this rate they could cancel each other out and let the Conservative win.
There are still four weeks to go until polling day on 19th October. If the Government does something astonishingly offensive to public opinion between now and then, perhaps enough voters in Mid Bedfordshire will be seized with an overpowering desire to punish it, and will work out which of the two main challengers is to serve as their instrument of vengeance.
But at present, it is hard to detect in this friendly place a revolutionary spirit. Many of the people most opposed to Dorries are disgusted by all politicians, and will not vote.
The deep continuities in English life are difficult to dramatise in the media. Ampthill, in the middle of Bedfordshire, a few miles the other side of the M1 from Milton Keynes, is a place which values its history.
The church contains a memorial to Katherine of Aragon, kept under house arrest by Henry VIII at Ampthill, and another to Colonel Richard Nicolls, born in Ampthill Park, who in 1664 received the surrender of New Amsterdam and renamed it New York, in honour of his friend and commander, the Duke of York, the future James II.
Nicolls died while serving beside the Duke at the Battle of Sole Bay in 1672, and the Dutch cannon ball which killed him is mounted on his monument.
This modest but surprising memorial is adorned by American and British flags, presented by representatives of the United States Air Force, Chicksands, when they left in 1995.
If Mid Bedfordshire surprises us on 19th October, it will most likely do so by refusing to endorse either of the Opposition parties, instead continuing, as it has done since 1931, to support the Conservatives.