July 18, 2024
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Disenchantment with the Tories spreads to Rishi Sunak’s own seat

Disenchantment with the Tories spreads to Rishi Sunak’s own seat

Rishi Sunak’s constituency of Richmond and Northallerton has long been regarded by the Tories as one of their safest seats.

Inherited in 2015 from former Conservative leader William Hague, the North Yorkshire constituency encompasses an expanse of hills and verdant farmland dotted with market towns and includes the UK’s largest military base at Catterick.

It is so quintessentially Conservative that, apart from a by-election wobble in 1989, it hasn’t been in serious political contention for more than a century.

But now, with the Tories mired in a betting scandal and failing to make headway in the polls, Labour thinks it has a chance.

“It’s like gravity has shifted. Suddenly we have access to more people,” said Tom Wilson, an NHS worker from nearby Darlington who is hoping to make history by ousting a sitting prime minister from parliament and becoming Richmond’s first ever Labour MP.

Wilson said the party’s surprise victory in last month’s mayoral elections for York and North Yorkshire, where the Tories have traditionally dominated, and the scale of Labour’s lead in national polls has ignited dormant opposition.

“The most striking thing for me is just how few certain Conservative voters there are,” he said, adding that “while people in the area like Rishi on a personal level, that seems to be their last remaining reason for backing him.”

NHS worker Tom Wilson is hoping to oust Rishi Sunak and become Richmond’s first ever Labour MP © Ian Forsyth/FT

Wilson was speaking just after a shock constituency level poll had been published showing Labour reducing the Tories to 53-seats in Westminster, taking even Sunak’s seat, which he won with a 27,210 majority in 2019.

The poll is an outlier in forecasting the prime minister’s defeat in Richmond. But other surveys have shown margins tightening to single digits and a narrow, if unlikely, path to victory for Wilson.

This would require Liberal Democrat and Green supporters to vote tactically for Labour, and the populist anti-immigration Reform UK party led by Nigel Farage to soak up anger at the Conservatives on the right.

Lee Martin Taylor, a veteran of the Royal Artillery regiment, is representing Reform in the constituency. He said the party had thrown more support his way as Sunak’s position had weakened. Having at first seemed impregnable, the seat now looks up for grabs. “That majority can disappear — it is not unassailable.”

Reform candidate Lee Martin Taylor
Lee Martin Taylor, a veteran of the Royal Artillery regiment is representing Reform in the constituency © Ian Forsyth/FT

There was considerable sympathy among constituents for the poor hand Sunak was dealt when he became prime minister in 2022, after the disastrous mini-budget of his predecessor Liz Truss.

But this was outweighed by the extent of disenchantment with the Conservative’s record after 14 years in power. Residents said the cost of living, collapsing services, and disappointment with the way Brexit has been handled were among factors that could persuade habitual supporters to cast a protest vote, or simply stay away.

Attempts to talk to Sunak’s constituency office and local Conservative officials met with no response.

Compounding local Tory woes is that so many of the hiccups during the first weeks of the campaign have been linked to Sunak himself.

The prime minister’s early exit from ceremonies in France commemorating the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings has gone down especially badly among army veterans and serving soldiers based in his constituency.

“A lot of the lads were really pissed off at that,” said one veteran of four tours to Afghanistan. Like other soldiers in the area he thought Reform’s Taylor would gain votes in the barracks as a result.

The public mood was at once febrile and gloomy: febrile because change is in the air, gloomy because few people appear to believe it will change their lives for the better.

People at a fruit market stall in Richmond town centre, North Yorkshire
Richmond residents said the cost of living, collapsing services and disappointment with the way Brexit has been handled were among factors causing them to vote for other parties © Ian Forsyth/FT

“There’s nobody to vote for — that’s the level of frustration,” said David Todd, a hotelier and life-long Tory who said neither he nor his wife would be voting for Sunak this time. He predicted the prime minister’s majority in the area would, at the least, be substantially squeezed.

Sunak does retain a significant following among residents whose businesses were rescued by the support he rolled out as chancellor during the pandemic.

But there was also scepticism about how genuine his frequent appearances at local events have been.

“He’ll turn up for the opening of a packet of crisps if it gets his picture in the paper,” said one shop owner who requested anonymity. Even the support of diehard loyalists came with grumbles.

“Enthusiastic is not a word I would use,” said Alastair McGinn, a retired marketing director, of his decision to back the Tory party again.

“All the sleaze that’s been going on, Truss and all her disasters, and the infighting. You don’t know what the Conservatives stand for any more,” he said. “It does piss me off. But better the devil you know.”

Two Richmond residents inside their cycle shop
The Caygill family, who make high-end bicycles on Richmond’s industrial estate, were optimistic about Labour’s chances © Ian Forsyth/FT

Sensing the turning tide, Labour supporters are daring to hope.

“If the Lib Dems and Greens bite the bullet and vote for Labour amazingly this place could switch,” said a teacher and life-long supporter of the party, declining to give her name. It felt, she added, like the first time in the 40 years she has lived in Richmond that her vote might count.

The Caygill family, who make high-end bicycles at a small factory on Richmond’s industrial estate, also suggested that Labour could pull off a shock victory in Richmond. Mandy Caygill, who handles the paperwork for the business, said: “For the first time in a century we have a chance.”

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