Market trader Glenn Houghton is leafing through old photography magazines at an antiques fair in Towcester town hall. “I’m a big fan. Anyone who steps up to the mark I’m a fan of,” he says, standing on the stage of a huge hall packed with decorative plates, model cars and war medals. “I wish I was in her cabinet, because I’d be patting her on the back and saying: ‘We all have off days.’” Houghton has come from nearby Northampton, hoping to sell his wares at the weekly fair. A fellow shopper called Colin chips in: “She’s had a lot of chances. She hasn’t got it,” he says. “It’s time for her to go.”
The day after Theresa May’s ill-fated conference speech, the Observer took a trip deep into the Tory heartland to gauge the mood among voters. With its centuries-old pubs and tiny winding streets, the quintessential market town of Towcester, Northamptonshire, reveals a similar split as the one in the upper echelons of the party. Houghton, who is 57 and has voted Tory all his life, continues: “The Conservative government should back her, because whatever you say about Boris Johnson, he’s a bit of a celebrity.” He describes Johnson as a “great bloke” but doesn’t think he’s right to run the country.
Houghton worries that political leaders are now like football managers, with the public not allowing them time to settle into the role: “The other day one manager got sacked after six games. That’s not fair. In a new job?” He pauses to make a bid on an ornately decorated medicine cabinet: “She’s only human, and people forget that.”
On the other side of the road Nick Hartwell is packing meat in his family butcher’s. He asks customer Jenny MacArthur, a 64-year-old retired sports journalist, what she thought of May’s performance on Wednesday. “Everything was bad luck in that bloomin’ speech!” she says.
MacArthur argues that, despite the prankster on stage, the incessant coughing and stage malfunctions that overshadowed the prime minister’s big moment were not her fault. She thinks it was still damaging because of the widespread coverage but is adamant that May should remain: “There is no natural successor. If there was someone who was obvious, you’d go for it … in a way I admire her resilience.”
Towcester’s MP is cabinet member Andrea Leadsom, who briefly fought May for the leadership last year before withdrawing. Some think Leadsom could still be a contender, but the people of Towcester seem to have other ideas.
Butcher Phil Colton put forward cult favourite Jacob Rees-Mogg as a potential successor. “I’d definitely vote for him. He’s honest. That’s all I need,” he says. Previously a committed Tory, Colton now considers himself a floating voter. “I’m not convinced by the Tory party. They’re all too busy fighting each other,” he says. And he was not the only one on Towcester high street citing endless infighting as their major concern.
On the outskirts of the town, in the 400-year-old Saracen’s Head pub, bartender William Iliff, 24, explained that he had previously voted Ukip, but was now a committed May supporter. “I think she can get stuff done. She seems to have a direction in mind and it’s a direction that I can swing with,” he says over the roar of a football game.
A man at the bar interrupts: “I’ve got a lot to say about that!” Stuart Stevens, 28, has come for a drink after playing football at the local club. Still in his kit, he explains that he grew up in a diehard Tory family and was an ardent follower until after the 2015 election, when his work as a criminal barrister showed him the damage done by austerity.
Stevens says he was particularly put off by May’s campaign against Jeremy Corbyn in this year’s snap election. “She’s a catchphrase prime minister,” he says, taking a sip of beer. “I don’t care about the coughing, I don’t care about any of that. It was just bland and empty nonsense. I see her a manager more than a leader,” he adds.
But bartender Iliff disagrees: “I reckon she’s a cracking prime minister. The only reason she’s struggling so much is because everyone’s on her back for the wrong thing.” Pulling a pint, he thinks for a few seconds before continuing: “It’s self-sabotage if they don’t stop fighting themselves. A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Dulcie Lee is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award for Young Journalists