While JP Floru claims it is ‘just over the bridge’, Hyde Park is really a world away from the constituency he seeks to represent.
The Conservative candidate for Bermondsey and Old Southwark is not a local politician, instead living and working as a councillor in Westminster – not far from ‘where Tony Blair lives’, as he points out.
Indeed, his political involvement with Southwark only stretches back to mid-January, when he was selected as a Tory candidate – although he does add that ‘a lot of my friends live here’.
It seems unlikely that this will be enough to sway the constituency’s voters. The Belgian is out at 100/1 to win the seat according to the bookies, but he stresses that his impact will stretch beyond this campaign.
“We are laying the foundation for future growth. If the Lib-Dems collapse, which has already happened at the local elections, fewer Conservatives will vote Lib-Dem tactically, which is what they’ve done for the last 30 years. We will grow. It looks good, the future looks very good. We are fighting here. It is probably a long game, but we are fighting here with some seriousness.”
Mr. Floru does not shy away from his underdog status, instead embracing it with some enthusiasm.
“Because this is not a target seat we get no help from Central Office. I can be as libertarian Conservative as I want. The pressure is not so much on. There is no agent, no office, no money. You learn everything, you get thrown in at the deep end.”
But while he accepts that it is unlikely that he will be elected, he nonetheless feels that his presence as a candidate is essential for the electorate.
“Otherwise the choice for the people of Bermondsey would be between the left, the hard left, the far left and the extreme left. Even UKIP is turning left – they oppose Right to Buy. So I’m the centre right candidate, I’m the non-Socialist choice for Bermondsey.
“My issues are based on aspiration, their issues are based on envy. For me, I try to put forward a positive message, getting people onto the housing ladder, getting people into jobs rather than being stuck on welfare – the aspirational message for people who want to work hard and play by the books and get on in life. I’m the only candidate who is saying that.”
It’s a nice sentiment, but Mr. Floru stumbles when it comes to specifics. He is uncertain about the exact level of unemployment in Southwark – ‘I can email you the figures’ – and many of his other examples are non-specific to the borough.
Despite this, he is clearly knowledgeable about Tory policies and speaks passionately about the big issues, especially housing, benefits and spending. “We have introduced Help to Buy and Right to Buy, which we want to extend to Housing Associations. 5.2m people live in Housing Association homes – that’s a fantastic aspirational message: people who may never have aspired to own their home, we can give them that right. Home ownership should be a right for the many, not a privilege for the few.”
Again, the examples are national rather than local, but he is earnest and sure of himself. He also speaks vigorously about benefits, leaning heavily once more on his buzzwords of aspiration and encouragement.
“We are in favour of a safety net but not a safety hammock. So that’s why we introduced benefits capping. It was introduced so that going out to work always pays more – it’s still pretty high – I believe it is £26,000 and we want to reduce it further to £23,000.
“Both the Lib-Dems and Labour want unlimited benefits. We have the situation where we have a few people who have got up to £106,000 in benefits. We capped it. You still get help but it encourages you to work. If you go to work you will earn more, so that’s an encouragement, rather than having people stuck on benefits.”
He becomes particularly animated when defending the local spending cuts imposed on the borough by the government since 2010. “For thirteen years the Labour government lived above its means, it spent more than it earned. In 2010, the last year of the Labour government, out of every £4 spent, £1 was borrowed. They were having a party and sending the bill to their children.
“Instead of having the party today and sending the bill to our children, we’re trying to tackle the deficit and do something about it. Labour bankrupted the economy. It was a dire economic situation, but we took the unpopular but necessary decision to do something about it. It has paid off – we have the highest GDP in the G7, we have created two million new jobs.
“I hear the other candidates during the hustings saying ‘Oh we’re going to spend this, that and the other’ – the money isn’t there! Where is it going to come from?”
Mr. Floru has few comments to make about his rival candidates, but his choice words are biting. He sarcastically references ‘good old Simon Hughes’ and his role in ‘the most dirty election in modern British history’ and describes the Lib-Dems as ‘almost indistinguishable from Labour’. In Scotland, he compares the choice between the SNP and Labour as a choice between ‘plague or cholera’ – he didn’t specify which was which – while for UKIP, he settles for a brief: ‘they are strange people.’
Despite his unflattering views on his opponents, Mr. Floru is sharp enough to realise that he will be unlikely to win the election this time around. Nonetheless, he clearly believes in potential of the Conservative party in the borough. If he wants to ride this wave, however, he will perhaps need embed himself a little deeper into the borough.
Or, perhaps not. As he says with a reluctant smile, ‘neither Margaret Thatcher nor Churchill were selected in the place they were born.’