3.9k Share this
Listen to the Labour Party, much of the media commentariat and a sizeable number of Tory MPs and you would conclude that the British people are broadly of one mind on the job prospects of Boris Johnson: it’s not if he goes, but when.
So why do I feel as if I am in another country? I have spent the past week touring those parts of Britain — England, to be precise — which constitute the fabled ‘Red Wall’.
They are those predominantly ex-industrial, pro-Brexit, white working-class areas which used to be implacably Labour but which came charging across to the Tories at the 2019 election, handing Boris Johnson the largest Conservative majority since Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 landslide.
Now, it seems, these same places will determine the Prime Minister’s fortunes once again.
For a substantial swathe of Tory backbenchers are waiting to see how the results pan out in Thursday’s polls before plotting any move on the throne.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson removes his jacket as he is given a shirt with his name on during a visit to Bury FC at their Gigg Lane ground, Bury, Greater Manchester
Here, in places like Sunderland, Bury and West Bromwich — all key battlegrounds ahead of Thursday’s polls — I discover a staggering uniformity on the key Westminster preoccupations of the day which can be summed up as follows.
Partygate? Disappointing but move on. Cost of living crisis? It’s real, but unavoidable. Illegal migrants to Rwanda? No objection, get on with it. Ukraine? Do all we can and open our doors.
Can a woman have a penis? Don’t even go there…
Now, it is abundantly clear from the opinion polls that these are not views shared in many more traditional Tory areas in the South.
The Conservatives seem likely to take a hammering in London in particular, where many candidates have erased Boris Johnson from their campaigns and are fighting on a ‘Local Conservatives’ platform.
What may yet save Mr Johnson is the Red Wall. And, from where I am standing, it seems to be holding up in its new shade of blue.
‘Can we just stop going on and on about parties?’ says florist Tina Dark. ‘I bet the other lot were at it too.’
We are chatting outside her pretty flower shop in Kidsgrove, Staffordshire.
And hers, I have to say, is the prevailing view when it comes to Partygate.
‘He’s probably the best of a bad bunch,’ says Sandra Lowe, out shopping with her daughter. Kidsgrove sits in the key council battleground of Newcastle-under-Lyme.
Craig Adams (centre) Conservative candidate for Great Bridge with councillors Will Gill (left) and Liam Abrahams (right) canvassing in Tipton, West Midlands
Part of the borough is represented by Tory MP, Aaron Bell, who has called for the PM to go. But the Kidsgrove area sits in the classic Red Wall seat of Stoke-on-Trent North, which had never seen a Tory MP until Boris loyalist Jonathan Gullis won it in 2019.
All 44 council seats are being contested, following four years of no overall control (with a Tory-led coalition). In other words, there is all to play for.
Here in Kidsgrove, I go canvassing with husband-and-wife Tory candidates Jill and Paul Waring. Paul says Partygate is an issue but not the issue.
‘Boris is not the draw he was during Brexit,’ he says. ‘You’re not going to convert anyone right now but they’re not moving away either.’
He points out that the voters are, say, closer to the PM than the Archbishop of Canterbury on Home Office proposals to process unauthorised migrants in Rwanda.
‘People are not exactly enthusiastic but it’s been well-accepted,’ he says.
The Warings are not only standing for the borough council but also the local town council.
The Tories have never won it but have high hopes on the back of new initiatives like the reopening of the local sports centre.
There is also much excitement over the revamp of the local railway station. There I find Kathryn Keeling, behind the counter at her coffee shop.
A onetime Labour voter from a staunchly red mining family, she has zero interest in whatever emerges from the Partygate saga: ‘Just crash on! It’s over.’
I hear exactly the same thing time and again in the vast slice of the Black Country where more than 300,000 voters around West Bromwich will be deciding the fate of the metropolitan borough of Sandwell.
Though Labour-controlled, the council has been so badly run that, earlier this year, the Government sent in commissioners to ‘restore public trust’ in this basket-case administration.
In true Red Wall style, the area — once the Labour citadel of former Commons Speaker Betty Boothroyd — returned three Tory MPs for the first time in history at the last election.
The Conservatives have seen their presence on the council creep up from nothing to double figures in recent years. I join a surprisingly young team of Tory activists on the streets of Tipton.
‘If you want to see change, you’ve got to be active and work for it,’ says Will Gill, 19, a history student at Birmingham University. He was the youngest councillor in England when he was elected last year.
Today, he is campaigning with fellow councillor, Liam Abrahams, 23, and candidate Craig Adams, 41, an amateur boxing coach.
It’s a midweek teatime and many of those people on their way home from work don’t want to chat. Those that do evince the usual apathy — ‘I hate all politicians’ etc — or have a moan about the council. Very few vent unprompted fury against the PM.
Amanda Delaney, 48, is walking home from school with her daughters, Daisy, 16 , and Lottie, ten. She says that times are hard, that the cost of living has already pushed up the electricity bill and that the council never answer the phone.
And Partygate? ‘Boris should have shown more respect but he’s been made to pay for it,’ she says.
Further down the road, we meet ex-hairdresser Joanne coming out of her house. ‘Boris? ‘He’s done wrong and paid his fine — but I like him. He’s funny.’
Potential voter, Amanda Delaney (right) with her daughter, Lottie, aged 10 , Tipton, West Midlands
The Tory MP for West Bromwich West Shaun Bailey tells me the same sentiment which helped him get elected at the last election has not gone away: ‘A lot of voters still have that same feeling of insurgency.’
I hear exactly the same view several hours later when I arrive in Sunderland. The three local Labour MPs here only clung on at the last e l e c t i o n t h a n k s to big votes for the Brexit Party.
Once, Labour commanded the vast majority of the 75-seat council but its lead is now down to single figures. Local Tories are hoping that enough of that ‘insurgency’ sentiment will deprive Labour of overall control next week.
If that happens, it would certainly spoil the victory party that Sir Keir Starmer’s troops are planning.
‘I have talked to 720 target voters in this ward and I can tell you that just two of them have said they won’t vote Tory because of Partygate,’ says Dr Antony Mullen, 30, a political academic and leader of the Sunderland Tory group.
‘One of those will stay at home and the other will vote Green. What’s interesting is that they are both traditional Tory voters. The ex-Labour voters still like Boris.’
What is equally interesting is that Dr Mullen has previously called for Boris Johnson to resign himself. But he fully accepts that this is a minority view among his core voters.
Unlike parliamentary elections, when party spin doctors will try to control visits from journalists like me, these local campaigns are delightfully random, unspun affairs.
There is alarm on Dr Mullen’s face as I hail a man busily spray-painting a fence and ask him about Partygate. He strides purposefully down to meet me, clearly wanting to make a point. ‘Look,’ he says firmly, ‘this party thing has been and gone and there are worse things in Europe.’ A plumber by trade, Julian Cliff, 49, adds: ‘Who else is there but Boris? And I’ll say this. That furlough scheme of his saved this house.’
In one street, we meet Mark, a teaching assistant who doesn’t vote, heartily loathes Boris Johnson but is equally cross with his council tax bills; Craig, a police officer who is ‘always a floating voter’, says he liked Tony Blair, hated David Cameron and Theresa May but, for all the ‘stupidity’, backs Boris Johnson; retired teacher, David, who calls the PM ‘an idiot’ but wants the Tories running the council; ex-engineer, Joe Laidler, who says that he may be from a long line of miners but would never vote Labour now.
This is not exactly a ringing endorsement for the Conservatives but it is by no means the rout which some are predicting.
The next morning, I head south to Bury in Greater Manchester, another key marginal area which saw both Westminster seats fall to the Tories at the last general election — though one of those MPs has since defected to Labour.
All 51 council seats are up for grabs with the sitting Labour administration (majority: five) in bullish form.
Sir Keir Starmer chose this town as the venue for his party’s big local election launch.
Then, last Monday, Boris Johnson showed up at the local football ground, Gigg Lane, home of the now-defunct Bury FC, to promote his levelling up strategy. In other words, this will be a crunch match on Thursday.
Even the Labour council leader, Eammon O’Brien, admits that Partygate is not such a big deal here.
‘I think there is an inbuilt attitude that this is just what we’d expect from the Tories,’ he says.
His big message is that the Conservatives have botched the cost-of-living crisis and that his council has a raft of measures to help the town get through it. Labour even paid for a full front-page ad on Thursday’s Bury Times.
‘That shows they’re scared,’ says Nick Jones, leader of the 15-strong Tory opposition on Bury Council.
So what is his core vote saying? During a tour of the town’s Whitefield district, where he is standing for re-election, it’s a familiar refrain. Most people aren’t interested in the election and a few shout abuse at ‘all them politicians’.
I meet a university professor who is undecided but ‘probably Labour’.
Of those who voted Tory in the past, however, none demand the PM’s head on a plate. They are all much more concerned about the streets — notably dog mess and bumpy pavements.
‘You can’t even get a wheelchair down here,’ says Carol, a retired nurse, as she swaps paving horror stories with dental nurse, Sally, 39.
Tory councillor Russell Bernstein points out: ‘This is about your street, not Downing Street!’ It would be a crime to leave Bury without its most famous export, black pudding. At Bury Market, butcher Andrew Fletcher says he is wholly unbothered by Partygate.
‘If anyone else were in, they wouldn’t do any different,’ he says. ‘Boris should have had his birthday party. I know I would.’
Like so many I meet all over the North, he is a firm supporter of the Tory plan for sending migrants to Rwanda and dismisses Labour’s pledge to solve the cost-of-living crisis. ‘Where do they think they’ll get the money from? Us, that’s who.’
Labour-voting cafe manager Terry Hughes says that he has certainly noticed people spending less in recent weeks. He also hears unhappiness about Partygate among his diners. So how will that play for Keir Starmer and his party?
‘I don’t know if Starmer is charismatic enough,’ he says. ‘Everyone round here prefers Andy Burnham [Mayor of Manchester].’
So what, then, can we predict with any confidence ahead of next week’s vote? The Tories are clearly going to get a pummelling in some places notably down south. However, this is a hotch-potch of scattered contests with some complex arithmetic.
If I had to bet on one outcome, it is this. Should the much-vaunted threat of a Conservative leadership challenge fail to materialise on Friday, then Boris Johnson will owe it to the Tory shires.
He can thank his Red Wall.
Source: Daily Mail