It was the afternoon of the Sue Gray report and, stood under the historic Tiverton Clock Tower, life-long Tories Andrew and Heather Barlow had already decided how they would vote in next month’s by-election here.
This was, he made clear, not a decision taken lightly.
The couple, both retired teachers, had gone blue at almost every election since they turned 18. As a student, Andrew had been a member of the Oxford University Conservative Association. He once had dreams of being a politician – until Heather told him that she had no dreams of being a politician’s wife.
Yet this near lifelong loyalty will be broken after the prime minister refused to resign over revelations he broke coronavirus lockdown rules by attending boozy Downing Street parties.
“He wouldn’t know integrity if it was looking him in the face,” said Heather. “I cannot understand how other Conservatives are not embarrassed to be associated with him. I think they are. They just don’t say it. And I’m not sure which is worse.”
Tiverton and Honiton – a sprawling, largely rural constituency in Devon – may feel a million miles from the machinations of Westminster but next month this agricultural heartland will find itself at the centre of the UK’s political universe.
A by-election is to be held here on 23 June after former Tory MP Neil Parish stood down following an admission that, while Googling tractors, he had ended up watching pornography in parliament. Twice.
It means that people here will be the first to ever go to the polls with a prime minister who has broken the law while in office.
And, if a former minister’s observation earlier this month is correct – that the longer the gravel drive the greater the anger about Partygate – the Tories may have good reason to be worried: while this is a constituency with pockets of considerable deprivation, it is also one with plenty of long, gravel drives.
“You get a lot of Tories here,” said Annie Hargreaves, a Northern Irish woman who settled in Tiverton 23 years ago and now runs Leela, a sustainable lifestyle store, in the town. “But it doesn’t feel like any of them are especially proud to be Tory at the moment. They feel let down by what’s happened.”
On paper, Tiverton and Honiton should still be a safe blue seat.
It has been Tory ever since it was created in 1997. In 2019, Parrish won a majority of 24, 239. For good measure, the Conservatives are the largest parties on the county, district and town councils here too. In 2016, it voted Brexit.
Yet voters here are openly debating if they are prepared to give their backing once more to a party so bogged down in sleaze and which – perhaps more significantly – is increasingly seen as taking the area for granted.
In an uncanny echo of last year’s North Shropshire by-election, the Lib Dems – third place in 2019 – have emerged as the unlikely frontrunners. “It’s a tougher gig [than North Shropshire],” party leader Sir Ed Davey said in an early campaign visit to the area. “But the Tories know we’re on their case.”
It was a sentiment reiterated by candidate Richard Foord in a Tiverton coffee shop this week.
“It’s clear to people that the Tories don’t feel they need to work for votes,” the 44-year-old said. “They’ve been complacent for years – and people are fed up of that. Absolutely fed up. Just like they were in North Shropshire.”
The evidence of complacency? Brexit trade deals have more or less ignored the region’s farmers; no action has been taken to address the fact that Devon has England’s longest ambulance waiting times; and a perceived lack of investment across the constituency.
“There’s been no levelling up money,” said Foord, who works for the University of Oxford but lives in Uffculme. “Tiverton has got a high school that’s simply not big enough for the town anymore – we’ve needed a new one for years – and the hospital now closes through the night because of cuts.”
There is, he says, a joke that people know when it’s election time here because local Conservatives start talking about building an Axminster bypass or a Cullompton train station. “These have been the same promises going back 20 years,” the father of three says. “They will still be making them in another 20 years, I expect.”
The cost of living crisis, too, is hurting people here in a way the government doesn’t recognise, he reckons. Fuel intensive sectors – like farming – are being devastated. In a place where people are reliant on their cars to get between small towns and villages, ever-rising petrol prices are adding to hardship. A cut on national insurance is needed, he says. A windfall tax on energy companies announced on Thursday doesn’t go far enough.
Against this backdrop of grievances, it has been suggested the Conservative contender here – that’s Helen Hurford, the deputy mayor of Honiton – has been selected, ultimately, as an “electoral sacrifice”.
“I asked in the tea room this morning if we had actually selected an electoral sacrifice,” Sir Roger Gale, MP for North Thanet, told BBC News this week. “And I’m told that we have.”
What Hurford herself makes of this is anyone’s guess.
As has become the norm with Conservative by-election candidates, the former headteacher is said to have been ordered not to talk to media during the campaign. The fear, apparently, is that she will not be capable of answering questions about Partygate in any satisfactory manner.
Safe to say, a request by The Independent to speak with her went firstly unanswered and then got declined.
More unusual, perhaps, is the fact that it is not just the candidate who appears silenced.
Local Conservative councillors, too, are said to have been informally told to go to ground in the wake of the Sue Gray report this week. One, the mayor of Tiverton, Sue Griggs, pulled out of a planned interview literally minutes after the document was published.
To add to the possible Tory woes, meanwhile, is the suggestion Labour – represented by local businesswoman Liz Pole – appear set to run a minimal campaign.
Sir Keir Starmer has insisted he wants to win this seat but, self-evidently, it makes sense for the party to focus resources on Wakefield, in West Yorkshire, where another by-election is being held the same day and where there is a greater chance of red victory.
And yet and yet.
Despite such a host of issues, it is by no means beyond the Conservatives to retain this seat. The fact is there are still plenty of people here who believe the government has served them well enough – not least in keeping them safe and financially secure through the pandemic.
“What’s he [Johnson] ever done for me?” pondered Carole King, in her eponymous Tiverton lifestyle shop. “He kept my business alive during the pandemic. He got a vaccine out before anyone else in Europe.”
It’s a popular point.
In a region with a large portion of independent businesses, there is a sense that whatever the prime minister’s faults, he had got a lot right.
“The cheques he signed off saved people from going under, including me,” said Tom Hirst, who runs Tivvy Cobblers. “We’ve got a lot to thank him for.”
He has, he admitted, a “soft spot” for Mr Johnson. “He’s different, isn’t he?” the 36-year-old said. “I think the parties just show he’s like the rest of us, really. I can’t feel angry about them.”
Pertinently, too, while senior Conservatives MPs may have questioned Hurford as a candidate, there are plenty in the constituency who think she is a wise choice. The fact she is local appears especially popular.
“She certainly will get my vote,” said Honiton’s mayor Serena Sexton, who herself sits as an independent. “I vote for the person, not the party and Helen is extremely capable. Compassionate, analytical, trustworthy. She would do an excellent job, just like she has done during her year sitting on the town council.”
Which brings us back, perhaps, to Annie Hargreaves in her Tiverton shop, surrounded by plants.
She herself will vote Lib Dems but she thinks, whatever the result, the by-election is already doing some good for the constituency.
“It’s so blue that people can be quite apathetic at election time, because they don’t think their vote will matter,” she said. “But this is different – it’s a real contest – and that’s invigorating people a little bit. It feels like our voice can make a difference for once.”
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