Emergency worker Alice Bowen pauses for a moment in the golden autumnal sunshine warming the bustling centre of Taunton. She should be exactly the kind of voter receptive to the prime minister’s efforts to help struggling families by junking what he claims are costly net zero pledges.
“We are a family of four. We cannot afford to get an electric car,” she says, as shoppers and office staff queue for sandwiches and bags of chips in Somerset’s county town. “It is not feasible for us. We both work full-time. He is a civil servant and I’m in emergency services. It’s not like we have bad jobs – it’s just that the cost is very prohibitive.”
But Bowen, 34, does not for a second buy into Rishi Sunak’s attempts to position himself as a friend of hard-pressed families – and plans to vote for the Liberal Democrats, who are seeking to overturn an 11,700 Conservative majority in Taunton Deane.
“Sunak is not relatable in any way, especially when you know what his wife does,” she notes, referring to the wealth of Sunak and his heiress wife, Akshata Murty, who are among the richest people in Britain.
This is echoed by other parents on the high street, where union jacks and Somerset red dragon flags flutter in a gentle breeze.
Grounds maintenance worker Terence Lowe, 38, who is out shopping with his daughter, scoffs at Sunak’s suggestion the old net zero goals would have imposed unacceptable costs on the British people.
“That’s just the line [the Tories] give you to make out that they are doing it for you, but they don’t care,” he says, resting on his crutches, which he is using to recover from a sporting injury. “Just look at the amount of private jets [Sunak] takes. He doesn’t care about the cost of living crisis. Let’s be honest … he lives in a totally different world than we do.”
There are also fears here that delaying the transition to a zero-carbon economy could jeopardise the green investment starting to come into the county.
Tata, the owner of Jaguar Land Rover, is building a giant electric vehicle battery factory in Somerset, creating 4,000 jobs and many more in the supply chain. “As soon as you take your foot off the accelerator, which they’re doing, then it will risk investment, because firms will go elsewhere,” says a steward at Somerset cricket ground, who asks not to be named. “They will go to other countries working to make the world a greener place.”
Even those who wholeheartedly support delaying green targets cannot bring themselves to vote Conservative again. “Sunak has made the right move politically for the party but whether it would make any difference for us … probably not at this point,” says Vivien Bowers, strolling with her husband, Tim, towards the muddy waters of the River Tone.
The couple plan to spoil their ballot papers at the general election, which is expected next year. “We both voted Tory last time,” says Tim. “But we are disillusioned with politics. At the moment, we’re going to go in and write ‘politics is not working’ and spoil the ballot – at least that would be noted.”
Yet there are some staunch Conservative voters who are pleased that Sunak is delaying a ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars.
Andy Smith, 78, says electric cars are too expensive and the changing infrastructure will not be ready by 2030: “He’s done the right thing to put it off for a while because we cannot afford it.”
His friend Teresa Lawrence, however, is not convinced by Sunak’s big reset. “I don’t know if he understands because of his privileged life.” Lawrence, 78, may switch from Conservative to Labour. “I always was Conservative but I’m not in the financial situation where I should be voting Conservative. I’m torn.”
There is no shortage of ideas about how Sunak could actually help those such as Lawrence feeling the pinch of rising costs.
David Waddilove, 69, who is a member of a local climate action group, says: “If it was actually about helping with the cost of living, then there were a lot of other things they could be immediately doing, including bigger windfall taxes [on oil and gas producers] and reorganising the tax system so the ultrarich are paying a little bit more and the rest of us could get by a little bit more.”.
Tory-supporting residents feel like the time might be up for Conservative environment minister Rebecca Pow, who has seen her majority in Taunton Deane slip from almost 15,500 to 11,700 since she won in 2015.
Retired maths teacher Geraldine Brearley, 72, will still be voting for Pow but she suspects the Conservatives will lose the seat: “I think people are struggling and when you struggle you think: ‘I’m going to try and change this.’”