Wellingborough by-election: Will voters punish the Tories for Peter Bone’s sins?

If the Tories were trying to hold onto disgraced ex-MP Peter Bone’s seat, you could be forgiven for not noticing.

On a grey Wednesday morning in early February, during the 20-minute walk from Wellingborough station to the town centre, there was not a single Conservative poster or billboard to be seen.

This is the very same market town that voted in Boris Johnson’s government in 2019 with a whopping 18,540 majority.

As the large Victorian terraced houses give way to smaller shops and family-run bistros, you finally pass Conservative candidate Helen Harrison’s campaign headquarters.

It is a derelict single room with a clamped car parked outside. Bar some of Ms Harrison’s posters hung in the window and a chair shoved in the back corner of the room, you wouldn’t think anyone had been inside for years – least of all a campaign team from the most electorally successful political party on the planet.

A clamped car sits outside Helen Harrison’s derelict campaign office (The Independent)
A clamped car sits outside Helen Harrison’s derelict campaign office (The Independent)

But talking to people in the town, it soon becomes obvious why the Tories appear to be keeping their powder dry. Despite Mr Bone’s chunky majority, they are fighting a seriously uphill battle.

Not only are the Conservatives 20 points behind Labour in the national polls but local voters are furious at the conduct that led to Mr Bone’s ejection from parliament.

The once senior Tory was booted out after being found to have indecently exposed himself to a staff member and trapped him in the bathroom of a hotel room.

According to many of the residents, the Tories did themselves few favours by selecting Ms Harrison, who happens to be Mr Bone’s partner of several years, to replace him.

Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak and his cabinet have shown little regard for the contest, with not a single minister nor the PM showing up to campaign in the seat.

After being told by several locals that they would not be voting, largely because “they [politicians] are all the same”, some voters elaborated on why they would not support the Conservatives next Thursday.

“I’m not voting for Peter Bone and his little puppet [Ms Harrison],” one ex-Tory voter told The Independent.

Ms Harrison is a 51-year-old physiotherapist currently serving as a Tory councillor in North Northamptonshire. She was one of the directors at Grassroots Out, a pro-Brexit pressure group which was co-founded by Mr Bone in the run-up to the 2016 EU referendum.

Mr Bone’s partner is an ardent supporter, despite the damning parliamentary report into his conduct, and has said she is proud” to have the former Tory MP on the campaign trail with her.

She has also claimed that the standards panel which found him to have exposed himself to an aide and physically struck him had “got it wrong”.

And, with Mr Bone at her side when knocking on doors in Wellingborough and Rushden, she has claimed people are not raising her partner’s conduct with her as an issue.

Another man said he usually votes Lib Dem, but Ms Harrison’s candidacy has spurred him to vote tactically for Labour next Thursday.

“The Tories have picked Peter Bone’s girlfriend and that means he’ll be running it, and we don’t want that,” he added.

A third Labour voter, who had also supported the Lib Dems in the past, said the party’s candidate, Gen Kitchen, had won him over. The man, who runs a U3A art class at the Victoria (community) Centre, said: “Gen has won my vote because she came to a painting class and did all her handshakes and introductions.

“But after all that, she rolled up her sleeves and helped the volunteers clean and tidy.”

Labour candidate Gen Kitchen’s campaign operation is a stark contrast with the Conservatives (The Independent)
Labour candidate Gen Kitchen’s campaign operation is a stark contrast with the Conservatives (The Independent)

“You’ve got to,” said Ms Kitchen, whose honeymoon was cut short by the damning report into Mr Bone’s conduct that sparked the by-election.

The 28-year-old former waitress, councillor and charity worker said it’s her natural instinct to help clean up, and she even does it at the local bingo.

She was born in Northamptonshire to navy parents who think the idea of her becoming an MP is “a bit mad”.

But Ms Kitchen, who went to a local state school during the last Labour government, is determined to fight for the constituents she says have been “left behind under Conservative leadership”.

She hit out at Mr Bone and the local Tory-run council, saying they have not applied for levelling up money and are leaving the high street to decay.

“Why aren’t they bringing innovative ideas to the high streets? They’re supposedly the party of business, and they are just not there.”

At one point, strolling through the Wellingborough town centre, there were 18 kebab shops and 18 barber shops all within a 10-minute walk.

One voter, a former doctor living in a more affluent neighbourhood, said the town had changed for the worse over 30 years. “It used to be a quite quaint village town but now the town centre is just run down,” he said.

He said he has voted for Labour and the Liberal Democrats in the past but would vote Labour this time because of Mr Bone’s misconduct.

But not all voters have made up their minds, Hassan Ben Ali told The Independent he would vote but “they are all the same”.

He complained about the cost of living crisis and the government’s handling of Brexit but said he was still considering backing the Conservatives.

And Mr Ben Ali criticised Sir Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak’s stance on Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

And, several hours after alighting from the train at Wellingborough station, The Independent finally found a house with two posters outside backing Tory candidate Ms Harrison.

But, asked whether she wanted to talk about her support for the Conservatives, the occupant declined.

The Independent was also one of many media outlets denied access to Ms Harrison. A Labour MP said the party’s tactic seems to be to hold on to as many diehard Conservative voters as they can while encouraging as low a voter turnout as possible.

“She is trying to sneak in by the back door,” the MP said.

And while support for the Tories was hard to come by, Ms Kitchen has a mountain of her own to climb. Even in Sir Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide, Wellingborough was Labour’s second most marginal seat, with a majority of just 187.

If Labour wins next Thursday’s by-election it would not just put Sir Keir Starmer on course for power but would suggest he is heading for a Blair-style landslide of his own.