‘Disgraceful’: voters in key byelection seats respond to Sue Gray report

Wakefield

Walking towards Wakefield’s medieval cathedral, lifelong Conservative voters Pat Spawforth and her husband, Peter, were in no mood to forgive Boris Johnson after watching his apology to the Commons over Partygate.

“It’s disgraceful,” said Spawforth, 80. “Disgusting,” added her husband. The prime minister’s refusal to resign following the excoriating Sue Gray report was evidence, he said, that the Conservative leadership was “rotten to the core”.

Pat Spawforth, who has voted Tory in most elections since she was 18, said she would not back the party in the forthcoming Wakefield byelection, which was triggered by the resignation of Imran Ahmad Khan after he was convicted of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy. Peter, who has always voted Conservative, said he was undecided.

“Boris was in charge; he should have stopped it. He should go,” said Pat. “He consistently seems to twist the truth, shall we say. That’s not how we’ve been brought up and it’s now what I approve of.”

The Conservatives are doomed if the views of these two party loyalists are reflected across Wakefield on 23 June. The West Yorkshire constituency has a Tory majority of only 3,358, having turned blue for the first time in 87 years in 2019.

Labour is odds-on to take the seat back in a key test of public opinion in a vital electoral battleground, although the next general election will not happen until May 2024 at the latest.

Smoking a roll-up outside Costa, Jeff Thomas, 77, was one of many Wakefield residents who voted Tory for the first time in 2019.

Like many who lent their vote to Johnson three years ago in protest at Labour’s direction, he said his vote was up for grabs next month. “Whether I’ll vote for them again, I’m undecided, but a lot of people won’t. I think Labour will get in. A bit will be down to Partygate but a lot of people didn’t vote last time who would this time.”

Thomas, a former construction manager, felt the parties in Downing Street were “wrong” but that it was “trivial” compared with issues such as the cost of living crisis and war in Ukraine.

Allan Jones and his yorkshire terrier Albert
Allan Jones with his yorkshire terrier, Albert. Jones said Boris Johnson was ‘a full-class berk’. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Allan Jones, a 69-year-old stallholder, agreed that it was time to move on from Partygate even though he was angry about it. “The first three months [of lockdown] was torture. Everybody suffered. You can’t make the law up then break it yourself,” he said, petting his yorkshire terrier, Albert. “He ought to be in a circus, that Boris. He’s a full-class berk.”

Several voters said they were sick of hearing about the lockdown-busting parties in Downing Street. Some also expressed fatigue with the early days of the byelection campaign.

Tidying up at Karpaty bakery, Anna Zach said it was obvious the prime minister should step down. “I’m disappointed. We stayed at home and we closed,” said Zach, 34. “Of course he must resign.”

Tiverton and Honiton

Two hundred and fifty miles south, in the Devon town of Tiverton, Nicholas Page was strolling through the pannier market in tweeds and green wellies, looking every inch a West Country Tory supporter, but even he admitted he was feeling less sure.

Nicholas Page
Nicholas Page said he would probably vote Tory again, ‘but it’s only a probably this time’. Photograph: Jim Wileman/The Guardian

“I’m a lifelong Conservative voter,” he said. “And I’ll probably vote for them again but it’s only a probably this time. Boris Johnson should have just admitted what had been going on. Instead it’s been all obfuscation and prevarication. His relationship with the truth is tenuous, to say to the least.”

But Page, a former farmer and now a self-employed countryside contractor in his 60s, said he could not see who could take over from Johnson. “He’s surrounded by useless yes men. I don’t know who’d be better.”

Nneka, 18, a college student, said she was disgusted by the Partygate scandal. “While the rest of us were following the rules, they were having a good time. They should be role models. They have failed and Johnson should resign.”

One of the elements of the Gray report that hit home for Nneka was the poor treatment of cleaners and security staff. “That’s terrible. They are powerful people who clearly don’t care about ordinary workers. We know Johnson is a racist with his remarks about watermelon smiles and letterboxes. I’ll never vote for them.”

Nneka, 18
Nneka: ‘While the rest of us were following the rules, they were having a good time.’ Photograph: Jim Wileman/The Guardian

Theresa Kelland, who runs the fruit and veg store in the town’s pannier market, recalled being stopped by the police during a lockdown when she was delivering supplies to vulnerable people. “The police were keeping an eye on people like me but not the prime minister,” she said. “They were partying when people were dying.”

Sweeping from Exmoor in the north to Lyme Bay in the south, Tiverton and Honiton has returned a Tory MP since its creation in 1997. The disgrace of Neil Parish, who resigned after being caught watching pornography in the House of Commons, may let in another party.

The Lib Dems were in Tiverton as the Gray report was published, drumming up support as they try to make inroads into the Tories’ 24,000 majority on 23 June. Hannah Kitching, a Lib Dem councillor from South Yorkshire who was spending her holiday on the campaign trail, said she had knocked on more than 200 doors.

“We’re finding a lot of discontent, disappointment, anger. People are really angry and hurt that Boris Johnson was breaking lockdown rules while they were doing everything they could to follow them.”

At the Independent Coffee Trader cafe, the owner, Leigh Parker, said she usually voted Tory but wasn’t sure who she would opt for in next month’s byelection. “I’m on the fence at the moment,” she said.

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However, she added that she was fed up with hearing about Partygate. “I’m ready to move on,” she said. Parker is more concerned about the cost of living crisis. She has run her cafe for seven years but does not take a wage for herself and works two other jobs – as a venue manager and private paramedic – to make ends meet.

“My electricity bill for this cafe has gone up from £110 to nearly £300 a month. That’s what is really on my mind.”

The Guardian