‘His goose is cooked’: Even true-blue Wokingham voters think Boris Johnson’s time is up
Some howled with derision. Others scowled. Most laughed. On a soggy spring afternoon in the traditionally Tory constituency of Wokingham, the mention of Boris Johnson still provoked strong reactions. Yet even among those in the town’s outdoor market who retained some affection for the former prime minister, there was an acceptance that his return may be more trouble than it was worth.
“His goose is cooked, sadly,” said Annette Stephens, overseeing a stall heaving with fresh eggs and farm produce. “I think Boris did a good job when he got us through Covid. He’s a great character. But I think as a whole, the nation now wouldn’t trust him – which is sad.”
Those doubts are a sign of the chaos fatigue that has become a feature of recent British politics – and put true-blue seats such as Wokingham in play. The constituency has never been anything other than Conservative. John Redwood has been the town’s MP for 36 years and was one of the few hardened Brexiters to follow Johnson in opposing Rishi Sunak’s new Brexit deal for Northern Ireland. Yet the seat is home to a particular type of affluent, liberal Tory voter that the party has been losing as a result of persistent Brexit wars and governing crises.
Even before Johnson’s removal and Liz Truss’s implosion, the Tory majority had slipped from more than 24,000 in the 2015 election to just over 7,300 in 2019. Liberal Democrats involved in that campaign still believe that their candidate would have won, had it not been for concern among potential Tory switchers over a Jeremy Corbyn government. If Sunak is to stem the haemorrhaging of support his party has suffered in recent months, shoring up Wokingham – a brick in the so-called blue wall of previously solid Tory seats being eyed up by the Lib Dems and Labour – has to be an early objective.
“Wokingham fits into the mould of being home to the people who the Tories lost in 2017 and 2019 – well-educated, upper middle class, remain-oriented voters,” said Robert Hayward, the Tory peer and longstanding polling expert, who believes there are early signs of progress for Sunak in such places. “It appears that the people who are coming back because of Rishi are in that category. Essentially, the traditional blue Conservative seats of the home counties.”
It isn’t hard to find voters who fall into that category. “At least things are starting to settle down now,” said Jane Stevenson, working in a cake van in the market with her daughter, Alex. “There was just so much controversy – and the stuff that has happened [with Johnson over Partygate], that leaves a bad taste in the mouth because they were setting the rules. I’ve always voted Conservative. He’s not doing too badly, Rishi. I don’t particularly want to vote Labour. Starmer’s on the fence too much.”
The Lib Dems remain confident they can maintain the momentum from 2019, however. Clive Jones, the Lib Dem candidate and a councillor, says voters remain disillusioned with the Tories on the doorstep. “The response is still incredibly strong for us, even though Liz Truss and Boris Johnson have disappeared,” he said. “There isn’t trust in them any more.”
Related: Why was Boris Johnson cast into the wilderness this week? Because a populist without a tribe is nothing | Jonathan Freedland
Phil Creighton, editor of local paper Wokingham Today, said that opposition parties had been trying to tie local Tories to the Truss and Johnson years. “If there’s an opportunity for the Lib Dems around here to remind people that John Redwood was a big Liz Truss supporter, they will do so,” he said. “In fact, one of the speeches in the council chamber last night from the Labour candidate in the last general election made mention of Trussonomics. There is an obvious attempt to try to link them.”
The Observer contacted Redwood and several Conservative councillors for their views on how local politics was shaping up. None were willing to comment.
There will be a good test of support in the area in May, when borough council elections take place. Tory domination of the council has been whittled away over recent years. While it narrowly remains the biggest party, the council has most recently been run by a Lib Dem-led coalition.
Most voters agree that – if nothing else – a period of relative calm would be a good thing. Steve, a former university lecturer browsing the market, described Johnson as “a man whose time has gone”, before adding: “I think one might have a little bit of confidence that what Rishi says is probably the truth. It is probably more likely now that I’d support the Conservatives. I’ve seen all of this before – a 13-year cycle, country in a mess, time for a new change. Labour comes in and makes it much worse. The problem is it has been such chaos in the last three or four years.”