Red wall seat delivers its verdict on Boris Johnson’s indiscretions

Reanne Dryden had to sit in the hospital car park in November 2020 while her deaf seven-year-old son underwent surgery on his ears – the result of UK government restrictions to stop the spread of coronavirus.

It was traumatic for the 28-year-old mother from Penistone in South Yorkshire to be isolated from her son at such a moment. So she has been disgusted to learn of the lockdown parties in Downing Street and Boris Johnson’s cavalier attitude to the rules he imposed on everyone else.

“I don’t think he’s right at all. We need a prime minister that listens to people and is honest, ”said Dryden, complaining of how people had been driven“ nuts ”during enforced periods of isolation over the past two years, but noting that even Queen Elizabeth had not behaved as if she was above the rules. “She sat there all on her own at her husband’s funeral.”

Dryden said her vote in the Penistone and Stocksbridge constituency has been lost to the Conservatives and thought the party’s MPs should remove Johnson as prime minister in light of the rule-breaking revelations.

Reanne Dryden
Reanne Dryden: ‘We need a prime minister that listens to people and is honest’ © Jon Super / FT

The political turmoil unleashed by “partygate” has left everything to play for in many traditionally Labor-supporting “red wall” strongholds in the north of England such as Dryden’s that Johnson helped swing to the Conservatives for the first time in 2019.

Since the scandal broke last year, Labor has gained a 10-point lead in national opinion polls and about two-thirds of people polled now want the prime minister to go. Tory MPs are being forced to weigh up whether the storm might pass and Johnson recover his fabled stardust, or whether the damage to the prime minister is irreparable and fatal for the party itself.

Government efforts this week to move the subject to more substantive policy issues were also falling flat in South Yorkshire. The launch on Wednesday of Johnson’s flagship “leveling-up” agenda, meant to address deep-seated inequality between different parts of the UK and to consolidate Conservative gains in the midlands and north, was greeted with widespread skepticism in Penistone, an area that might gain.

David Sanderson expresses skepticism about the Tories’ leveling-up plans © Jon Super / FT

“It’s not going to happen in my lifetime,” said David Sanderson, a 72-year-old retired engineer.

Natasha Holmes, a theater director who works in schools in the area, was more scathing. She said that rather than leveling up, Johnson and his staff had driven a fresh division “between the haves and have-nots” by behaving as if they were above the law.

Natasha Holmes
Natasha Holmes: ‘The dirt is beginning to stick even among people who initially gave him the benefit of doubt’ © Jon Super / FT

“The dirt is beginning to stick even among people who initially gave him the benefit of the doubt,” she said.

On leveling up, some local Conservative councillors conceded there was much work to be done to convince the people the government was serious about spreading prosperity more evenly across the country.

“Grand schemes don’t excite people because they take so long to come to fruition,” said Robert Barnard, who represents a rural ward near Penistone.

Map showing Penistone, Stocksbridge, Sheffield, Manchester and Leeds

Yet South Yorkshire Conservatives such as Barnard, who are facing voters in local elections in May, appear less troubled by prime minister’s transgressions than party members in other areas, who have been quicker to call on him to go.

This is partly because, for all the turmoil engulfing Downing Street, there is, as yet, little evidence of great enthusiasm for anyone who might replace Johnson, whether from the Conservative or opposition Labor benches.

“Across the party membership here, the difference in views mirrors what’s going on in parliament: some think he should go, some think he has a mandate and should continue,” said Lewis Chinchen, the 21-year-old chair of Sheffield Young Conservatives who won a council seat in the steelmaking town of Stocksbridge in May last year.

A straw poll in the area delivered similar findings. Waitress, Milly Barker, said the prime minister was a “giant man-baby.” But Liz Turner, an older customer who thought he had been a “naughty boy,” still saw Johnson as the “man with the get up and go who got Brexit done”.

Liz Turner, Laurel Claydon and Milly Barker

From left: Liz Turner, Laurel Claydon and Milly Barker © Jon Super / FT

So while the prime minister stumbled through another calamitous week of resignations and censure, many people in South Yorkshire had yet to detect a decisive shift in the political temperature.

“It’s blowing all over the place,” said Mandy Christofi, who owns an artisanal bakery established in 1853. “Boris has done himself a lot of damage, and he has also done some good. But you tell me who is better? ”

Equally worrying for Sir Keir Starmer, the Labor party leader, is that he is failing to cut through emphatically in a region where the party could once depend on the votes of coal miners and steelworkers en masse, and which he must regain if the Tories are to be defeated.

Les Burns
Les Burns is unimpressed with Labor’s leadership, as well as with Boris Johnson © Jon Super / FT

Les Burns, the bartender at a working men’s club north of Sheffield described Johnson as a “disgrace,” and said the Conservatives “don’t give a flying shit about up north.” But he said that Labor, in this area, had also lost people’s trust. “They don’t see any strong leadership,” he said.

The next test of whether that is changing is coming in May’s local elections. Janet Ridler, who is standing as a Labor councilor in Stocksbridge, where the 700 remaining jobs in the old steel mill are at risk, insisted that people were returning to the party and the local polls would mark a step towards regaining the parliamentary seat at the next general election.

“Nobody likes to admit they backed the wrong horse,” she said. “But people feel let down. The scales are falling off their eyes. ”

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