‘We’re in danger’: UK Tory MPs fear losing key ‘red wall’ seats | Daily News Byte

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The office of Jonathan Gullis, MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, offers a splash of color on a drab, boarded-up high street; The Union Jack and Boris Johnson are pictured on the reinforced glass windows of this Conservative redoubt in former Labor heartlands.

But Gullis, like other Tory MPs defending seats in the “red wall”, faces electoral oblivion according to the former prime minister’s memories – and his 2019 defeat of the opposition in the Midlands and the north of England – early polls. to fade

A Westminster colleague of Gullis said: “The red wall is dead. It is possible that we may not retain any of the seats we won in the last elections. Some people are just hanging around for their severance pay.”

If this mass of working-class, traditionally Labour-voting constituencies declines, it is likely that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s 69-majority government will also fall.

Gullis, a restless and popular local campaigner, is less pessimistic, insisting that all is not lost. But in the heart of North Staffordshire’s “pits and pots” country, Tunstall’s rundown high street is a salutary reminder that change under the Tories is slow.

He stressed that if Sunac provides an inspiring vision of the future and ensures that local people “can see and feel the change, it can take hold. . . . We are in danger at the moment. But things can be recovered.”

Elderly pedestrians in Tunstall
Tunstall lies in the heart of North Staffordshire’s ‘pits and pots’ country © John Super/FT

The Conservatives won a net gain of 48 seats in the UK in 2019, marching through Brexit-voting, working-class Labor towns, including Stoke, with its ceramics industry and long association with coal mining.

Gullis said his seat – which he won with a 6,286 majority and had never elected a Tory before – was a bellwether because “whoever wins here, wins the next election”.

For now, the outlook for Gullis and close colleagues looks bleak. A poll by Redfield and Wilton in the 40 Tory-held Redwall seats gave Labor a 23-point lead at the end of November.

The decline in support is not hard to understand. Gullis – a right-wing, “anti-woke” former teacher – said three extraordinary factors helped him win in 2019: “Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson – in that order.”

The problem is they’re all gone. Brexit is a taboo subject for mainstream politicians, while Corbyn, the left-wing Labor leader who seceded parts of the north of England, is history.

The man who “made Brexit happen” is also gone, Gullis regrets. His office has pictures of Johnson, Churchill and Thatcher but – so far at least – Sunak. Indeed, walking through the streets of Tunstall, it’s easy to see why Gullis clings to the prospect of Johnson’s comeback.

The good news for Sunak in Stoke is that while some voters have mentioned his extravagant wealth, many of them have yet to form a firm opinion of him, despite efforts by Labor leader Sir Keir Starr to portray him as privileged and out of touch.

Susan Bowden serves tea at the Market Grill at the city's indoor market
Susan Bowden: ‘We voted for Boris. I will never vote for him again’ © Jon Super/FT

The bad news for Sunak is that it’s not Johnson. Susan Bowden, serving tea at the Market Grill in the city’s indoor market, said she only voted for the Conservatives. “We didn’t vote in Liz Truss or Sunac,” she said. “We voted for Boris. I will never vote for him again.

Linda Foster, a customer, said: “I’ve always voted Labour, but I voted for Boris Johnson last time. I liked what he said. ” Foster said he would vote Labor at the next election, feeling that Tunstall and the surrounding area had been let down by successive Conservative administrations.

Johnson nostalgia is far from a national pastime, but it is widespread in the stock. “I’ve been a laborer all my life until Boris,” says Pat Wainwright, a haberdasher at the market. “He made mistakes, but who doesn’t in politics or in life?”

The problem for Gullis is that with Johnson gone, all that remains is the former premier’s pledge to “level up” areas such as stocks. Delivery of that pledge has been a long time coming, and the evidence so far has been sketchy at best.

He listed government funding for a bus improvement strategy, a town improvement deal for nearby Kidsgrove and support from the Leveling Up Fund, along with new home office jobs processing asylum claims.

But he admits he has yet to see evidence that Sunak understands the issues facing places like Tunstall, saying: “Rishi has yet to deliver that vision for the area – or the country, if I’m honest.” .”

Their fear is that, as the election approaches, Sunak and Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, will effectively cancel parts of the north and focus on circling the wagons in the Tory heartlands of the south.

“It’s a bit of a concern. There hasn’t been much talk of raising the level since Rishi took over as chancellor with Jeremy,” Gullis said, adding that he hoped next spring’s budget would present a positive outlook.

Linda Foster
Linda Foster: ‘I’ve always voted Labour, but I voted for Boris Johnson last time’ © John Super/FT

Immigration is another big concern for voters. Stoke, which voted almost 70 per cent for Brexit in 2016, is one of the country’s biggest “dispersal” centers for migrants crossing the English Channel on small boats.

Gullis said that for MPs like him to stand any chance in the next election, Sunak had to “do the Rwanda thing” – in other words, move asylum seekers from Stoke to East Africa – to start working and leveling up the economy.

Some Labor shadow cabinet ministers representing northern seats, in contrast to the usual pre-election hubris, say they see no recovery for the Conservatives in the red wall, especially as the recession begins to bite and public spending is cut.

One said: “There is no way back for them. People were told things would change and they didn’t. They have become worse.” However, another senior member of Starmer’s team urged caution, warning that voters were switching to Labor but without enthusiasm.

Indeed, while the majority of voters have yet to form a strong opinion on Sunak, some voters seem to have already made up their minds about Starmer. “It’s got no oomph,” said a Labor voter on an estate on the edge of Tunstall.

Wainwright sums up a sense among voters, captured in the polls, that Starmer spends his time “knocking” the Tories without saying what he believes.

There is no sense in Tunstall that he has sealed the deal. Yet that may ultimately not matter, if Stoke voters conclude that Brexit and Johnson’s promise of change are a chimera.

“I’m definitely voting Labor next time,” Bowden said, handing over the bacon butties. “Starmer is not strong enough. But we have no choice.”

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