Boris Johnson is facing a fight for political survival this month, but he will not be getting a hand from Paul Blackwell.
“I’m not voting Tory again while he’s in charge,” says the sales manager, out shopping in the southwestern town of Tiverton in Devon, where the prime minister faces a perilous parliamentary by-election later this month. “He’s a blithering clown. I usually vote for the Tories but I’ve lost faith.”
Around the corner at Tiverton’s bus station, a hub in this rural Conservative bastion, Terry, a retiree, is equally unimpressed. “He’s lied to people and he’s still doing the same now,” he says of the prime minister. “Old fashioned values have gone out of the window. There’s a lack of integrity from people at the top.”
Will he be voting Tory on June 23? He looks out over the green hills fringing the town centre: “Never again — not after all this.”
Johnson’s reputation has been battered by a scandal over parties in Downing Street during the Covid lockdowns. He now faces an economic tsunami of soaring inflation and the worst cost-of-living squeeze in a generation. The last thing he needs is a parliamentary by-election in Tiverton and Honiton — what should be a safe seat for the Conservatives.
Just two-and-a-half years ago, Johnson led his party to an overwhelming victory in a general election, winning a parliamentary majority of 80 seats. Last year he was praised for the government’s smooth and rapid rollout of Covid vaccines.
But after a constant drip of revelations in recent months about the behaviour of Johnson and his staff while the rest of the country was subjected to a brutal lockdown, his team will be relieved if they can get through June with the prime minister still safely in his post.
The Devon by-election, triggered by the resignation of local MP Neil Parish, who says he watched online pornography in the House of Commons while trying to research tractors, has at least generated some dark humour. Andrew Pryce, director of James Pryce Tractors in Tiverton, has become a minor media celebrity, offering expert advice on whether it is possible to confuse farm machinery with porn.
But Pryce does not see the funny side of what has been happening in Downing Street. “I’m appalled they have been able to get away with it, I really am,” he says. “I think Boris Johnson is really lucky to be in a job still.”
Growing pressure to quit
Although the boundaries have changed at times, the Tiverton constituency has been Tory since the 1920s. The Conservatives’ majority there in 2019 was a whopping 24,239.
It is a sign of Johnson’s problems that the bookmakers have installed the Liberal Democrats as odds-on favourites to win the seat — a cluster of small towns and villages with the textiles town of Tiverton at its core. Conservatives believe they can cling on in Tiverton and it is still easy to find local voters who believe the prime minister is doing a good job in trying circumstances. Lib Dem strategists say a victory is “possible” but insist it is still a long shot.
But the Conservative campaign is not helped by the fact that almost 30 Tory MPs have called for Johnson to quit, with criticism mounting on a daily basis. The prime minister, whose leadership was questioned last month by the senior civil servant Sue Gray in her report into “partygate”, thought he had found a temporary break this weekend as the country turned its attention to the royal jubilee celebrations. However he was booed when he arrived at St Paul’s cathedral on Friday for a thanksgiving service.
Some rebel Conservative MPs believe Johnson could face a no-confidence vote as early as the coming week: a total of 54 Tory MPs are required to write to Sir Graham Brady, chair of the backbench 1922 committee, to trigger such a vote. Johnson’s allies say claims the rebels are approaching the magic number are misguided: “We’re not in the danger zone yet,” said one. They insist the situation is being whipped up by a handful of malcontents.
Still, it is clear that poison is running through the party’s bloodstream. “Boris Johnson erodes the institutions he’s part of,” says one normally mild-mannered Tory MP who has submitted a letter. “Anyone who gives him the benefit of the doubt gets burnt. He will destroy us and he doesn’t care.” The rebels believe that even if the prime minister survives the week, a defeat on June 23 in Tiverton and Honiton — and another contest in the northern Tory seat of Wakefield on the same day — would make a no-confidence vote inevitable.
The pressure is therefore on Helen Hurford, a former primary school headteacher and the Tory candidate in Tiverton to help save Johnson. But her views on the prime minister are hard to discern, since she is being shielded from the national media amid fears she will be asked about partygate. Requests from the Financial Times to meet her on the campaign trail went unanswered.
One man in Tiverton’s Fore Street, studying the posters for forthcoming films at the town’s Tivoli cinema, admits sheepishly to being a local Tory councillor, before whispering conspiratorially: “You’re wasting your time, mate. We’ve been told to refer all media inquiries to the press office.” It is not exactly a sign of a party brimming with self-confidence.
‘They aren’t in the real world’
It is easy to see why the Conservatives are nervous. Last year the Liberal Democrats, a party still recovering from the trauma of a five-year coalition with the Tories under David Cameron’s premiership, won two parliamentary by-elections in the Conservative strongholds of Chesham and Amersham, and North Shropshire.
The demographic make-up in North Shropshire, where the Tories were defending a 23,000 majority, looks ominously similar to Tiverton and Honiton: mainly rural and strongly pro-Brexit. Lib Dem strategists claim that a third of people who voted for the party in North Shropshire had supported leaving the EU in 2016.
The Lib Dems, who opposed Brexit, claim that the issue is seldom raised specifically on the doorstep in Devon. “But people say things like: our lives haven’t improved like they said [they] would,” says one Lib Dem campaigner. “That’s often a tacit reference to Brexit.”
The two by-elections on June 23
Tiverton and Honiton
What happened: Neil Parish, the MP since 2010, stood down after admitting watching pornography in parliament
Conservative majority: 24,239
Held by a Conservative since its creation in 1997 and in previous incarnations since the 1920s
What happened: Imran Ahmad Khan resigned following his conviction for sexual assault
Conservative majority: 3,358
Formerly a Labour marginal won by the Tories in 2019 election
In Tiverton’s pannier market, there is genuine sadness that Parish, a farmer who was seen as an active advocate for his constituency, has resigned. But now he has gone, some seem determined to punish Johnson. “I think Johnson has burnt a few of his bridges with the public and with his MPs,” says Joanna Bellamy, 53. “When he was having parties and people couldn’t see their loved ones — that shows they aren’t in the real world.”
Conservative MPs say that the partygate scandal — and the associated idea that standards in public life are sinking under Johnson’s leadership — has had greater resonance among traditional Tory voters. Julia Govier, a local businesswoman, says she is a Conservative voter but “disillusioned with what’s going on”.
One south-west Tory MP said: “Nice, soft, middle-of-the-road Tory voters are beyond upset with Boris and they won’t be changing their mind.” Three Tory MPs in Devon constituencies neighbouring Tiverton have called for Johnson to quit. The Lib Dems, cheekily, have challenged Hurford to call for his resignation too.
But Johnson still has his supporters. Tiverton, where the specialist textile factory John Heathcoat made the parachute material for the Mars landing of the Nasa Perseverance Rover last year, has a working class heritage, giving it something in common with the so-called red wall manufacturing areas of northern England that backed Johnson in 2019.
“I think he has been dealt with a bad couple of cards, his whole tenure has been hit with one thing after another,” says John Gutterridge, 60, speaking in the town’s market. “He does come across as a bumbling fool sometimes but, on the other hand, you can relate to him more as a human.”
According to 23-year-old Dale Padmore: “The parties were bang out of order. But Johnson is getting slated so much, when actually I think he is doing a cracking job with all the other stuff.”
For many Tory MPs, it is not yet clear that Johnson has become an electoral liability. Some, particularly in the north, owe their seats to his populist, charismatic style and are reluctant to roll the dice, especially when it is far from clear who would succeed him. The result in Tiverton and Honiton could help to clarify whether Johnson retains some magic dust or whether any other leader would be better.
The polling signals are all flashing red. Tory MPs have spent the jubilee weekend having their ears bent about the government’s performance at street parties across their constituencies.
The Labour party has caught up with the Conservatives, or overtaken them, on many economic measures, according to YouGov, as the country’s inflation rate heads towards 10 per cent.
Anthony Wells, political director at YouGov, says the contest in Tiverton and Honiton will be between the Tories and Lib Dems; Labour, which finished second here in 2019 is fighting a near-invisible campaign, focusing its efforts on the Yorkshire seat in Wakefield. The two centre-left parties have an unofficial non-aggression pact, leaving Johnson facing a battle on two fronts.
Johnson’s approval ratings have nosedived. This time last year, when he was presiding over Britain’s successful vaccine rollout, he was briefly in positive territory, but a YouGov tracker now puts him on minus 42. The same poll found that almost eight in 10 voters thought he had lied over the partygate affair, while only 8 per cent thought he told the truth. Labour’s poll lead over the Conservatives is averaging over 6 per cent.
Support for the Conservatives among farmers (who are normally solidly Conservative) has also been sliding, amid concerns that promises made to them about the benefits of Brexit have not been delivered.
Meanwhile business confidence has also been falling sharply. The Institute of Directors last month found optimism among business leaders was at its lowest level since October 2020. Of those feeling pessimistic, the most common reason given was inflation and problems trading with the EU following Brexit.
The collapse in support for Johnson, the swirling of Tory “sleaze” stories and a slump in the government’s economic competence ratings have drawn comparisons with the 1990s, when another apparently exhausted Conservative government staggered to defeat.
Back then John Major was hit by a series of personal scandals involving his MPs, some of which seem quaintly innocuous now. Johnson, by contrast, has seen a Tory MP convicted of sexual assault, another arrested on suspicion of rape and still others accused of bullying and sexual harassment. And, of course, he has personally been fined for committing a criminal offence: breaking Covid lockdown rules.
David Lidington, a minister in Theresa May’s government and first elected in 1992, recalls how Major’s government had already lost its reputation for economic competence after Britain was forced out of the EU’s exchange rate mechanism in 1992 before the “back to basics” scandals hit.
“There’s a serious risk for the government that scandals are seen by the public as an illustration of a government that has been in office for too long,” he says. “One of the biggest challenges in 2024 will be to resist the ‘time for a change’ argument. Labour are already using the ‘they’re running out of ideas’ line.”
Lidington notes that at least Johnson is not facing a highly popular, charismatic Labour opponent, as Major was with Tony Blair in 1997. But Sir Keir Starmer, today’s Labour leader, believes the combination of personal wrongdoing and economic missteps could prove fatal for Johnson.
“People are starting to think that Johnson is not doing as much as he should be to help them through the cost of living crisis,” says one senior Labour official. “They are starting to ask themselves whether that’s because people in Downing Street are out of touch or having a party, when they should be looking out for them.”
Lord Jonathan Hill, a former adviser to Major, says that in some respect Johnson’s predicament is more precarious. In the 1990s “there wasn’t a sense that all of our institutions were collapsing, that Whitehall was collapsing and Number 10 didn’t work”. The economy, under Major, was also recovering, not sliding into a possible recession.
Tory MPs also had a sense that Major was continuing the work of Margaret Thatcher, his predecessor, while Hill says now there is a “feeling that the philosophical moorings have been severed”. Some rightwing Tory MPs say Johnson’s imposition last month of a windfall tax on energy companies was the final straw — Britain’s tax level is already its highest for 70 years.
Hill says that even in the dying days of the Major administration “there was not this wild lurching around so you did not know what kind of party or policy approach you were going to get”. He adds: “The party did not have an identity crisis.”
Nowhere is that identity crisis more apparent than in the hills rising above Tiverton towards Exmoor national park, where Johnson spent part of his childhood.
Farmers here had long assumed the Conservative party was their political wing: Johnson’s recent focus on “levelling up” and on northern towns have left some feeling taken for granted.
Robin Milton, who farms around 200 Aberdeen Angus beef cattle and 500 sheep at Higher Barton on the edge of Exmoor, points to a recent survey suggesting farmers in the south-west had lost around £880mn during the transition from the EU subsidy regime to a new British support system.
“There was always a promise that farming would be all right,” says Milton. A shortfall in farm incomes was having a knock-on effect for local shops, farmers’ merchants and agricultural machinery producers.
“There’s a huge amount of fear in the farming community,” he says, surveying the moors where Johnson grew up. “I’m not quite sure he understands the impact of what’s happening to local people.”