Eggs and litter on the campaign trail
The great thing about having the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs brief is that, as my colleagues sweat on the doorsteps of towns and cities, my campaign involves visiting the countryside and eating. When I meet the farmers at breakfast, I get bacon and eggs. David Cameron, by contrast, has eggs thrown at him, and is stalked by a man dressed as a chicken. When I visit local food shops, I always try the fare. Lunch is never less than a ploughman's, but teas are the best. We sit around farmhouse tables and set rural policy to rights over chocolate cake or scones and cream. By the time the election comes, I may need to borrow a pair of trousers from my friend and neighbour Nicholas Soames.
In Cornwall recently, I visited three farmer's markets and tried the local white wine. English wine has been the butt of jokes for years, but, like our food, today's product really bears no resemblance to the Château Paintstripper we all remember. There are quite a few growers now in my constituency in the South Downs of West Sussex. Climate change has brought opportunities as well as challenges, and, where once they grazed sheep, they now grow vines. One sparkling wine, Nyetimber, has been served to heads of state in Downing Street and Buckingham Palace. It recently trounced decent Champagnes in a prestigious blind-tasting award. They're not allowed to call it Champagne, of course, but that's what it is. How glorious to beat the French at their own game.
In between large meals and the odd glass of wine, I do get out onto the doorsteps. Mostly, I rather enjoy it - the opportunity to find out what people are really thinking. But I've built up a great deal of sympathy with postmen who have to deliver every day.
First, there are the heavily spring-loaded letterboxes. Even if you can avoid the dogs that silently and malevolently wait to remove your fingers as you poke the leaflet through, the letterbox itself can shred your digits, as a colleague found out - three stitches later - last week.
Some of the letterboxes are located at the bottom of the door, with the result that our elderly canvassers take about five minutes to bend down to reach them, and another 10 to straighten up. And then there's the street numbering, which shows no rhyme or reason. In Brighton this week, I commiserated with a postman as he passed by. ‘No,' he said cheerily as he strode up a hill. ‘This is the best job in the world.' How marvellous to have such job satisfaction. I wish I could say the same about being a politician.
Set high on top of the glorious South Downs is the famous Chanctonbury Ring, a circle of beech trees that was planted by the Goring family in the mid 18th century on the site of a Roman temple. Thousands of walkers pass by the Ring on the South Downs Way, and you can see the landmark from as far as Gatwick Airport.
Sadly, a disrespectful minority abuses this special place by leaving their rubbish scattered about, often after midnight partying. I get a lot of correspondence from the public about the scourge of litter. We all agree that the problem is getting worse. Our rural lanes and roads are strewn with plastic bottles, crisp packets and fast-food containers. Buildings and pavements are disfigured by chewing gum. It's revolting.
Therefore, last week, I decided to depart from the usual election campaigning and take a bit of social action, as well as drawing attention to my plan to tackle the problem. I dragged my team up to the Chanctonbury Ring and we picked up litter - bags of it. Then we had lunch, of course (English ham, two local eggs and chips), before going and picking up more on the roadside. We wore tabards that announced us as the ‘Tory Green Team', and we joined forces with some wonderful local volunteers who, every week, go out and pick up litter in their village. One of these indomitable ladies was reported to the police after she attacked a man with her stick when she spotted him dropping his cigarette packet. I didn't ask if the police took her DNA. But I bet the litterbug doesn't do it again - at least not in one of our West Sussex villages.