The Conservative Party may have installed the UK’s third prime minister in seven weeks, but public frustration will not be so quick to change.
In times of recent political chaos, I’ve been out and about in different parts of Britain and found outrage, bafflement and a deep sense of betrayal: from anxious mortgage holders to pensioners freezing at home, and from business owners struggling without staff to first-time Tory voters who want their hometowns “levelled up”.
On the day Liz Truss resigned, 21 October, I was being battered with rain in Middlesbrough, a Red Wall town still in Labour hands but which has been trending Tory since it voted overwhelmingly for Brexit. Grand municipal buildings rise across from a patchy town centre: on three corners of its main shopping square Debenhams, House of Fraser and Miss Selfridge had closed down. A column-buttressed room in the old fire station, built within the sandstone town hall, was being turned into a warm bank.
As Truss departed I heard a mix of outrage and weariness at the mess the government has made. Rising costs were worrying everyone, who either said they wanted a general election or simply expected one.
“Bring on a general election,” said Glen, 66, a retired postal worker who had never voted Labour before. He has been working in a teaching job for extra money, unable to survive rising costs on his pension alone. “It should be the public, not the Tory party, who decide the next prime minister.”
“The Tories have made a mess,” said David, 69, who worked at Lowcock’s Lemonade and now does odd jobs, such as planting trees and building fences. “Labour would probably do something different.”
Pam, 70, told me she and her friends were “scared to put on the heating” this winter; she was hoping for a change soon.
Ben, an engineering master’s student in his mid-twenties, sighed that the Conservatives were forcing him to “pay attention” to politics again while he was attempting a “news detox”. This feeling is similar to the atmosphere in 2019, when people were so fed up with MPs bickering over Brexit that Boris Johnson’s promise to get it “done” seemed particularly appealing.
Further south, in a west Yorkshire town that switched from Labour to Tory in 2019, I listened to an irate Tory councillor and grocer who preferred not to be named. He is a working-class former Labour voter, but had joined the Conservatives in 2019. He felt the focus on “levelling up” towns like his was being lost in Tory infighting.
“I’m sick of hearing them blame it on Ukraine,” he said. “My sales are down 42 per cent because no one’s got any money, and they’re making it worse.” On Rishi Sunak becoming Prime Minister, he added: “They have had 12 years to steady the ship and guide us into safer waters. The country needs a general election. I feel poorly let down.”
On the evening of the ill-fated fracking vote that collapsed Truss’s short-lived administration, I joined suited office workers funnelling out of London to commuter-belt Esher in Surrey. At a focus group over tuna sandwiches and sparkling water in a hotel reception room, seven of eight locals of the Conservative-Lib Dem marginal constituency said they wouldn’t vote Conservative next time. The eighth, a lifelong Tory voter, was wavering.
“I’ve always voted Conservative, my family have, but given all the shenanigans, I’m undecided. They’ve lost credibility,” said Kay, who runs a party business and has two grown-up children. “There’s so much uncertainty, taxes going up and down, not knowing what will happen to energy prices.”
Although Esher, where the former deputy prime minister Dominic Raab is MP, is affluent, people were concerned about living costs. “We’re in a bubble here,” said Kay. “But you can see on TV that people are on the breadline. It’s really worrying. I’m also worried for my kids who might never own a home.”
Simon, 44, a history teacher with four children, said he was avoiding switching his water heater on. He showered at work, and had his children shower at the local swimming pool. He was putting off planning a family summer holiday next year. “It sounds very 1 per cent, but my savings are being eaten into,” he said, concerned about his mortgage rising.
A former teacher, Lauren, off work with two young kids, said she knew public sector workers in schooling and healthcare “who work really hard and are at the top of their pay brackets” but were having to turn to food banks.
After Johnson announced his resignation as prime minister in July I visited Barnstaple in north Devon. One of the county’s most deprived communities, Barnstaple is a town that loves rain. Only when the weather sours do holidaymakers leave the impressive beaches along the nearby coastline – Saunton Sands, Croyde Bay, Woolacombe – and drive up to the inland market town for a cream tea.
Along a quaint thoroughfare (What The Flower, a florist, Bare Necessities, a grocer, and Ooh that’s Naughty!!!, an ice cream parlour) and through the Victorian market of redbrick arches and iron colonnades, people I spoke to felt overlooked by Westminster. As in northern England there was a feeling that Johnson’s flagship agenda – levelling up – wouldn’t be fulfilled.
“You can’t get new blood coming in to work because there’s nowhere for them to live,” said Stephen Brennan, owner of Ooh that’s Naughty!!! and seven other local businesses, including a drag bar called Masquerade, which he opened in January.
Wearing an ink-splattered stripy shirt and stained jeans, glasses pushing up his greying hair, he called for the government to focus on housing and labour shortages.
“I found out one member of staff has been living in his car for five months, because the housing stock is zero,” he said of a waiter he employs. “And my drag acts need somewhere to stay but there’s nowhere even to put them up for the night.” After Johnson, he hoped the next prime minister would tackle problems like his, but seemed cynical.
David Hoare, a former chef who was working for the local Tory MP for North Devon, Selaine Saxby, was frank about the “detachment” of this constituency from central government promises: “Fifty miles from the M5 and Exeter, people feel left out, disconnected from everything going on, the last to get funding. People [in Westminster] talk about ‘levelling up’, but how much it impacts on people’s lives is debatable.”
Failure to rebalance the economy is an electoral pitfall that awaits the Conservative Party, which is already at historic lows in the polls thanks to the damage caused by the September mini-Budget. The party is falling behind in both the Red Wall and the Blue Wall of Tory strongholds in the south, according to a tracker by the pollster Redfield & Wilton.
“There doesn’t need to be a tension between a focus on Darlington and a focus on Devon – both areas need stronger public services and more jobs,” said Adam Hawksbee, deputy director of Onward, a conservative think tank that is studying different parts of the country in its “Levelling Up in Practice” programme. “[But] the scale of the levelling up challenge is huge, and recent events have made it even harder. If the next government takes its foot off the pedal, even an inch, there is a real risk that the promises made to the electorate in 2019 will be broken.”
As Rishi Sunak enters No 10 he will face a dilemma: how to distinguish himself from the failures of his party while retaining a mandate that is withering in the eyes of the public.