‘People just won’t be able to live’: Tory supporters voice concerns before bellwether by-election

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Boris Johnson pictured with thought bubbles containing a house, a coin, a stethoscope and a ballot box
Boris Johnson pictured with thought bubbles containing a house, a coin, a stethoscope and a ballot box

As Boris Johnson faces sustained pressure from Conservative MPs over a number of issues, from migration to a looming cost of living crisis, The Telegraph commissioned two focus groups in Tory seats to gauge the views of working class Leave voters who backed the Prime Minister’s party at the 2019 election.

The groups, organised and moderated by Public First, the polling firm that has carried out work for Downing Street, took place in Bury South, a Red Wall seat won by the Conservatives with a majority of just 402, and Old Bexley and Sidcup, where voters will select a successor to James Brokenshire, the highly regarded former minister who died of cancer, on Thursday.

In both locations, fears about the rising cost of living featured heavily in discussions about participants' everyday concerns, together with migration, the NHS and housing.

Tom Banks, director of Public First North said: "The Prime Minister and his Government are entering a critical period in their relationship with working class leave voters. While those who ‘lent’ their vote to Boris Johnson in 2019 are not having full blown buyers’ remorse, there are now serious questions being asked of his Government."

Cost of living

Image of a home smart meter for gas and electricity - Facundo Arrizabalaga/Shutterstock
Image of a home smart meter for gas and electricity - Facundo Arrizabalaga/Shutterstock

Asked to identify the biggest issues that they and their families expected to face over the next year, members of both groups responded instantly with cost of living concerns such as "more taxes", "inflation", "fuel costs", "interest rate rises", and "energy prices".

"It's not pennies anymore," said Steven, 61, a warehouse manager in Bury. "We're jumping up in 50 pence chunks now. It used to be five pence here or 10 pence there, whether it's on your cornflakes or your fuel, ciggies or whatever. Now it's just going stupid."

Clare, 41, a sales assistant and mother-of-four from Bury agreed: "Diesel is dearer, we've had a notification from the mobile phone company saying that they are going to have to put the prices up in April ... Christmas shopping ... there are no sales, there are no offers, so presents for the kids have been dearer."

Maria, a 37-year-old mother-of-three who works as a communications officer in Bexley, said a recent rise in the cost of fuel had led to "extortionate" prices. She said: "It costs me £10 more every time I fill my car, so it's an extra £30 a month."

"Everything seems to be going up apart from my salary," said Derrick, 59, a sales manager and father-of-two in Bexley.

Steven added: "Every year inflation and wages have always gone up ... now the gap between the two is getting to the point where people just won't be able to live."

Mike, 38, a leisure centre manager in Bexley said: "I owe my landlord a lot of money now, because of Covid, because I had to reduce my payments. I've lost all my savings.

"The way that all the costs are coming up, energy and electric and fuel, disposable income that I could save with has got smaller and smaller and smaller to the point where I'm getting up, I'm going to work, I'm coming home and going to bed and I'm not earning any extra money. And with this new National Insurance rise and fuel, I'm essentially looking at almost being in debt by the end of every month now."


Image of UK Border sign at an airport - Steve Parsons/PA
Image of UK Border sign at an airport - Steve Parsons/PA

"There is a fundamental elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about, and that's the fact that the population is just spiralling out of control," said Derrick, the sales manager in Bexley. "We're a small, piddly little island ... we've got too many people for the space that we're in, we haven't got enough doctors [for the population size]."

Mark, 42, in Bury South, said: "You think about your kids and your grandkids and there's no new housing being built. There's no social housing going on. The population keeps going up because we just keep letting everybody in. And the people they let in jump straight to the front of the queue. It is scandalous, it doesn't happen anywhere else in the world. And it's frustrating.

"We haven't got the room. It's just going to fall apart, this country, because the health service, schools ... it's alright saying 'come in' but, let's face it, people that do come into this country are crammed into already deprived areas that don't get any money anyway. You see it all around the North West."

Mark said he had only "voted once" – he backed the Conservatives in 2019 when Boris Johnson pledged to "control immigration" – but added: "I won't bother again."

Laura, a 44-year-old cafe assistant from Bury, said: "It sounds horrible and you do feel awful saying it but it seems that [migrants] just get everything handed to them. And I think our percentage of taking in is a lot more than other countries. Why are we taking a lot more in?"

Clare, the sales assistant, said: "One of the reasons I voted to leave was for immigration. It wasn't as a racist thing ... we need to help each other out and if there's a country that's in difficulty, and we can help them then I believe you should help them. But there has to come a point where your country's crippled, when we have to start helping people at home."

One theme that emerged in both groups of Leave voters was a concern that more eastern European workers were needed to plug job vacancies such as in the hospitality sector. The sentiment appeared a far cry from the pre-Brexit insistence by some Eurosceptics that EU migrants "deprive British citizens of jobs".

Before Brexit, "when the Polish were over here, they worked their a---- off," said Clare. Now, she believes, the UK has sent "all the ones that work, all the ones that graft home ... yet we'll bring all the people from Syria in and we'll give them money".

"I was in Cornwall in the summer, every single shop was crying out for staff," she said.

Derrick, in Bexley, said: "There are jobs that fundamentally, as Brits, we don't want to do. We don't want to sweep the streets, we don't want to clean the toilets ... so we have to bring people over."

Both focus groups were held on Tuesday, a day before 27 people bound for Britain drowned in the Channel – although concerns over the numbers of migrants entering the country illegally by boat were raised in both sessions.


Ambulances parked up outside a hospital - Steve Parsons/PA
Ambulances parked up outside a hospital - Steve Parsons/PA

"My concern is the NHS, the state that it's getting in," said Debbie, a 61-year-old project administrator in Bexley. She had taken her elderly mother to hospital days earlier and her mother, who uses a wheelchair, was left "outside in the cold just to get triaged".

"I do feel it's because people can't get through to their GPs and get appointments so they just turn up at A&E," Debbie said.

Her view was shared by Kevin, a 63-year-old gardener. "They need to open up the surgeries better," he said.

Others agreed about the apparent lack of an availability of GP appointments – a problem widely reported in recent months but played down by health chiefs as applying only to a tiny minority of surgeries.

Laura, the 44-year-old cafe assistant, said: "I haven't been able to get to see a doctor for, I can't remember how long. It's literally been years. My son got an ear infection and I was told to go to A&E with him with an ear infection."

Clare, the sales assistant in Bury, was outraged that she had been left with no option other than to visit A&E for a problem she felt could have been easily addressed by a GP.

"My daughter got impetigo on her face and I couldn't get into the doctors. The doctors told me to go to the chemist, the chemist told me to phone 111, I phoned 111 and I had to take her to A&E for impetigo. It's just crazy. I had to sit there for three hours with her to get a prescription for antibiotics."

However, Abigail, 40, a warehouse operative, said she did not "have any issue generally getting an appointment" and the problem appeared to be "hit or miss" depending on individual surgeries.


A row of new build houses - Getty Images
A row of new build houses - Getty Images

In Bexley, Sally, a 57-year-old retail supervisor, said the Government must oversee the construction of "more affordable housing for our children."

Derrick said: "We're not going to own property in years to come. We're going to be like Europe, we're going to be renting ... because unless you are earning £40,000 plus you won't be able to afford a mortgage."

Maria said she wonders where her three young children will live when they are older: "Are they going to live with me for the rest of their lives?"

Mike, said: "I'm a 38-year-old and by the time my parents were 38 they had already had two homes ... I have absolutely no hope of buying a home in the next five years. Absolutely none. Not just in London, but anywhere, because I simply don't have the financial ability."

In Bury, Steve said: "There are cheap homes being built for yuppies who can afford them – because they're not that cheap."

"No, they're not," agreed Deb, 60, a full-time carer with 14 grandchildren. "Affordable housing is not affordable to the majority of people."

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson during his speech to the CBI - Owen Humphreys/PA
Boris Johnson during his speech to the CBI - Owen Humphreys/PA

"I moved to vote Conservative basically because of Boris Johnson, because I thought, this man knows what he's talking about and he says it as it is," said Clare, the sales assistant in Bury. "But I think we just need somebody that knows how it is to live in the real world, how it is for typical working class and how we struggle to survive."

Michelle criticised the Prime Minister's performance during his speech to the CBI on Monday, during which he "couldn't find what he was doing" and was "fumbling with his papers".

"Everything about that man is just a joke really ... He has always been like that. But I mean, you're Prime Minister, show a little bit more organisation and skills. You're meant to be running a country and you can't even get your papers right. I mean, what does that say? Come on."

Amy, a 33-year-old PA, agreed, saying: "I do quite like Boris Johnson and I do feel he's been put in [difficult] situations, but at the end of the day, if you are addressing millions of people just to be a little bit more organised doesn't really take that much."

But, particularly in Bexley, there were warm words for Mr Johnson's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Derrick said: "We hit the nail on the head with the Covid vaccinations ... give the guy some credit on that. On the flip side of that they just seem to be reverting to type ... He goes to this [Cop26] meeting in Glasgow, tells us all that we're going to hell in a handcart, it's two minutes to midnight on the environment, and then he flies home by private jet to have dinner in the West End."

This week's by-election

"I think the Conservatives are really worried they're not going to hold Old Bexley," said Derrick. "They've had it for years since Edward Heath was a candidate for this area. We've had Boris down here, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, was down here last week. They don't send big hitters down here if they're not really worried they're not going to hold the seat. And I think they should be worried if I'm honest."

Amy, the PA, said: "I have lost faith in them over the past year. I think deep down I probably will vote Conservative again, but they should be worried."

Mike said: "When they turned around and said 'we want to help social care', and then taxed people, which every critic you listened to said was going to hit the poorest people ... I think that was when I started losing faith in the Conservatives."

He added: "I genuinely don't know who I'm going to vote for at the moment."

Did you vote for the prime minister's Party in the 2019 election? What are your views on Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party? Let us know in the comments section below

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