Nigel Farage, the outspoken and controversial spokesman for the UK Independence Party, is on a big pub crawl. It's not just for fun — it's part of his campaign to get elected as the next MP for Buckingham. John Harrington joins him on the campaign trail.
It doesn't take long for the "straight talking" public face of UKIP to get stuck in. The subject is Belgium, famously labelled a "non-country" by Nigel Farage earlier this year. Its beers are far too strong, he says. Give him a pint of English ale anytime. "We're the only country in the world that makes proper beer," he later confirms. "The rest of it is just not worth drinking."
UKIP's colourful chief spokesman is taking a break from getting up the noses of Eurocrats to try to wrestle the seat of Buckingham away from Commons speaker John Bercow. Pubs are at the heart of UKIP's campaign and I join Farage mid-way through his bid to visit every pub in his constituency, to gauge the views of pub licensees and customers.
He's been to about 70 so far, roughly half, he says as we arrive at the Bull & Butcher in Akeley. It's a well-kept pub in what looks like an attractive, affluent village, but host Pauline Bacon says things are far from rosy.
"It's not so much the trade," she says. "It's the bills behind the trade. Staff wages have gone up, we've got electricity and gas bills going up... if your trade drops, or even stays the same, you're on the back foot."
Duty hikes have forced her to add 10p to a pint, Bacon says. Then there's business rates, which will reach about £700 per month under the new valuations. She's lodged an objection with the council.
As the two discuss a range of issues, Farage is keen to stress UKIP's solutions.
Cheap supermarket alcohol is a "big problem", Bacon says. Farage interjects: "Generally I'm in favour of the free market, but I think the pub is such a vital element of community life that if you allow supermarkets to go on doing what they are doing there wouldn't be anything left.
"I think we should have some degree of minimum pricing in supermarkets."
And the smoking ban has deterred customers, Bacon explains, particularly workers. "Why can't I have a smoking room? I think that's called democracy and freedom of choice." Farage jumps on the issue, one of his passions. "If we relax the ban, put a nice smoking room in the back, lots of people would come in at five."
Drink driving is another area that animates the would-be MP. He says the Government plans to cut the legal limit from 80mg to 50mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood, meaning one pint would put drivers over the limit.
The Government hasn't actually endorsed this idea and it's not included in Labour's election manifesto, although transport secretary Lord Adonis said a "strong case has been made". Nevertheless, Farage is keen to portray it as a near-certainty.
Bacon is a tied tenant (she asked for her landlord to remain anonymous) and says the tie is also becoming a strain. She says beer is so expensive that she keeps orders low, meaning there's a danger of running dry. Around 60 pubs locally stock beer from her own microbrewery, Silverstone, but the tie means it can't be stocked at the Bull & Butcher.
For Bacon it's not so much being tied to certain products that's the problem, it's the price levels that mean she can't compete with the freetrade.
"I think there has to be a degree of liberalisation," says Farage, adding that his "big worry" is that many pub companies want to close pubs for redevelopment. However, Bacon, a former national account manager at Newcastle's Federation Brewery, is cautious about what action Government can take: "It's so complicated that if you don't understand what you are doing you could make a big mess of it."
Farage says he never asks licensees how they will vote. Nevertheless, he does ask a direct question: "Do you think Labour or the Tories are on your side or against you?"
"We don't have a voice," Bacon replies. "I've not heard of anything from Labour or the Conservatives that would help the pub."
As if to justify Farage's campaign, the licensee adds: "Every MP should go to local pubs, sit behind the bar and listen to what real people in this country think."
Next stop is the Wheatsheaf in Maids Moreton, a 17th-century thatched freehold run by licensee Gary Mantle. It's lunchtime and busy with locals eating hearty pub grub and sampling some real ales. It's clearly a regular crowd, who engage in some light banter with Mantle.
Business seems brisk, I say. "It's up and down," he replies. "Some weekends are very busy, at other times of the day it's totally dead. Every week is different. This pub is on the market. The owner is not going to get what he's looking for because who wants to buy a pub in this age?"
Mantle's grievances mirror Bacon's (beer tie aside), with supermarkets, energy bills, the smoking ban and reform of drink-driving laws making the list. The Wheatsheaf's business rates bill has also soared — from £11,500 to £17,000 — and the pub is appealing.
The licensee agrees with Farage that having a separate saloon bar for smokers would help the pub and tightening up the drink-driving laws would be disastrous. The UKIP man is clearly tapping into the zeitgeist, in this constituency at least.
"It feels to me that this Government doesn't have any concerns whatsoever about the number of pubs closing," adds Mantle, as we say our good-byes and head to town.
A quick catch-up with party activists at campaign HQ in Buckingham — the UKIP shop — is followed by a stroll into town. (It's raining so Farage picks up his familiar purple UKIP umbrella. I half expect him to grab a bowler hat as well, but am left disappointed.)
We enter the Three Cups, a family-run free-of-tie pub on the high street and Farage asks manager Ben Jones if he enjoys his job. "I do, yes. You get to mix with all kinds of people, from business people to 'spit and sawdust' people."
How's business? "It's steady at the moment. It could be busier, but people don't have the money they did five years ago." Trade is about 15% down on that period, he explains.
The routine is familiar now. Farage asks if he'd welcome a smoking room to attract lost trade. The manager doesn't see why the older generation in particular should have to smoke outside in the rain.
The MEP highlights supermarket pricing. Jones says that he favours higher alcohol duty for stores to help pubs compete.
Farage promises to return and asks the manager if he wants UKIP beer mats and petitions for the pub. Yes, he does. Job done, it seems.
"He is making an effort to speak to people," Jones says. "In my experience, Bercow isn't."
There's a bleaker picture down the road at the New Inn, where Greene King tenant Vicky Dyson says the pub can take as little as £50 in a day. Cheap supermarket pricing and later licensing hours have had an impact, with people coming out later and less often, she says.
Another issue struck us as we entered: a managed pub opposite is selling pints for around £1.50.
Despite taking part in Greene King's Price Crunch promotion (which lets the pub sell certain brands at cut price and the company absorbs the cost) Dyson says it's not enough to compete.
She says she asked for extra discounts, but was told this would mean higher rent.
"The little people like us are fighting all the time, struggling for nothing," Dyson says. "We don't make a lot of profit. We just have one member of staff on Saturdays."
Special events such as steak nights have failed to attract big crowds, she says, and the utility bills are "enormous". "We hold our own until we get the bills. I'm surprised I've survived this long."
Pub and beer fan
Back at campaign HQ, I ask Farage why he embarked on this campaign. "I personally like pubs. I'm a great fan of proper beer. What I like about pubs, apart from the beer, is the cross section of people you meet. I love the conversati