Blackpool South voters turn on ‘Richy’ Rishi Sunak ahead of crunch by-election

Exclusive: Cynicism reigns supreme in Blackpool South ahead of a key by-election, but voters are also sceptical Sir Keir Starmer would do any better

Archie Mitchell
Saturday 20 April 2024 15:58 BST
Scott Benton has Tory whip suspended after being filmed offering to lobby for gambling firm

Disillusioned Conservative voters in Blackpool South have turned on “Richy” Rishi Sunak ahead of a crunch by-election, a focus group conducted with The Independent reveals.

With two weeks until the contest to replace disgraced former MP Scott Benton, a group of 10 Tory 2019 voters said the prime minister is “weak” and “just does not have a voice”.

Working in a range of industries, the group described Blackpool’s descent from a bustling beachside resort a town riddled with shuttered shops, antisocial behaviour and an overstretched health service which has driven some to go private.

Voters ‘felt that politicians had neglected Blackpool and that they were only in public life for themselves’ (PA Archive)

The sense of disappointment was palpable, with Kathleen, a cleaner, warning her son not to walk down the deprived Central Drive, a once-thriving street with views of the iconic Blackpool Tower. Meanwhile, Loretta, a community support worker, bemoaned that there is nothing for children to do that does not “cost a fortune”.

David, a mechanic, said he has taken out private health insurance after being left waiting years for multiple surgeries on the NHS.

While the group voiced their frustration at Mr Sunak, who they saw as weak and out of touch, they did not express any enthusiasm for Sir Keir Starmer either.

The Labour leader was described as unlikable, with one participant saying he was “more scared of Keir than of Rishi”.

A by-election to replace Mr Benton will be held alongside the local elections on 2 May.

The former Blackpool South MP quit before he was removed from parliament after being embroiled in a lobbying scandal.

Scott Benton won the seat in 2019 with a majority of 3,690 (PA Archive)

He was found to have given the impression he was “corrupt” and “for sale” after he was secretly filmed saying he could table parliamentary questions and provide “behind the scenes” information for up to £4,000 a month.

The Blackpool South focus group, run by pollster Luke Tryl of More In Common, were well aware of Mr Benton’s misdemeanour.

But, troublingly for Mr Sunak, they said it came “from the top”. Nicole, a local business owner, said: “If you see your boss actively doing something untoward with no repercussions, everybody then is going to think that they can get away with it too.”

She said she had been turned off by “the tax [...] thing”, an apparent reference to Mr Sunak’s multimillionaire wife Akshata Murty holding non-dom status, as revealed in 2022 by The Independent. Ms Murty has since volunteered to pay tax in the UK on her overseas income.

Another, Hannah, who works for an engineering firm locally, said Mr Sunak was “weak” and “better as chancellor” and called for the Conservatives to “bring back Boris [Johnson]”.

“Boris had a voice, Richy does not,” she added.

Voters criticised Mr Sunak’s wealth, with one claiming he has ‘never even seen a Kia’ (HM Treasury)

And David said Mr Sunak is not “in touch with the modern man”, referencing a March 2022 stunt in which Mr Sunak appeared to fill up a Kia Rio in New Cross, London.

“He has never seen a Kia in his life,” the voter said. It was later revealed Mr Sunak had borrowed the car from a shop assistant.

Kathleen said: “A lot of it comes down to the money situation, he needs to get in touch with reality and see what it is like to live in the North.

“Come and see how we live here, we struggle, there are thousands on the dole… he’s got money.”

But as much as the focus group revealed disappointment with Mr Sunak, the voters did not display great enthusiasm for Sir Keir. Most of those present expected Labour to win the next general election but were less certain the party leader would do a better job.

Labour leader Keir Starmer with Chris Webb, Labour’s candidate for Blackpool South (PA Wire)

Two participants criticised Sir Keir’s tenure as the director of public prosecutions, echoing the false claims of former PM Mr Johnson that he used his time as a chief prosecutor “prosecuting journalists and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile”.

Sir Keir was not central to the decision not to prosecute Savile, which was made on the grounds of “insufficient evidence”.

But Kathleen claimed Sir Keir had concluded Savile “did not have a case to answer”, while Joel, a landscape gardener, criticised his handling of the Savile case and his stance on transgender rights. “If he can’t say a female is a female and a male is a male… it’s not right.”

Mr Tryl, UK director at More In Common, said if there was one word to describe how the focus group viewed politics it was “cynical”.

The pollster told The Independent: “They felt that politicians had neglected Blackpool and that they were only in public life for themselves.

“Whether it was crime, the NHS or immigration this group of Tory voters were scathing about the government’s record, and unconvinced the opposition could do much better. Even more than other parts of the country we visit this group in Blackpool clearly believing the stories had run their course but didn’t have much hope for the alternative.

“And far from being surprised that their former MP Scott Benton had been caught seemingly breaking the rules for his own gain, they thought it was just part of a culture that started at the top with the group pointing to Sunak’s tax affairs setting the culture for the rest of his party. Nor did the group think Labour were any different, bringing up both Starmer’s time as head of the CPS and the claims about Angela Rayner’s tax affairs as evidence all politicians were as bad as each other.”

Ms Rayner denies any wrongdoing.

Reform UK leader Richard Tice has been campaigning in Blackpool ahead of the by-election (AFP/Getty)

Labour is widely expected to take the contest in Blackpool South, where Mr Benton won in 2019 with a majority of 3,690.

It would make it the latest by-election loss for Mr Sunak, who has suffered a series of stunning defeats since becoming prime minister.

The contest is also crucial for the fortunes of Nigel Farage’s Reform UK, formerly the Brexit Party, which threatens to split the vote and deprive the Tories of tens of seats in the next general election.

The party is currently polling in third behind Labour and the Conservatives but is expected to perform well in Blackpool because more than two-thirds of voters in Blackpool backed Brexit.

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