On the streets of Wakefield, a cathedral city in northern England, Boris Johnson’s name was this week met with sardonic laughter, often followed by expletives.
“He can do what he wants and get away with it,” said one café worker, who added a series of unrepeatable insults. As she disappeared into the back of the shop, a customer a few tables away called across: “Exactly.”
On June 23 Wakefield will see one of two crucial by-elections that will test the UK prime minister. The other will take place in Tiverton and Honiton, in England’s rural south west.
The Wakefield contest poses a key test for whether Labour can win back its former heartlands. A West Yorkshire city surrounded by former pit villages and semi-rural communities, in 2019 the seat switched to the Tories for the first time in nearly 90 years — part of the so-called “red wall” in post-industrial parts of the north and midlands.
Pollsters predict the Conservatives will lose the vote, as cost of living pressures escalate after months of headlines about partygate, the scandal that saw Johnson fined for lockdown revelry at Downing Street. While the prime minister survived an internal vote of no confidence in his leadership last week, 148 Tory MPs voted against him, undermining his position.
He is also being investigated by the House of Commons’ privileges committee for misleading parliament over his knowledge of the parties.
In Wakefield bus station, friends Elizabeth Parsons and Alice Boardman said they would be backing Keir Starmer. The by-election is “vital for Labour”, in Elizabeth’s view.
“If I didn’t vote for Labour my dad would be spinning in his grave,” she said, adding that she could not believe what the prime minister had “got away with”. “He’s got no shame at all.”
“He’s a buffoon,” added Alice. “But a very clever buffoon.”
Lynn Walsh was also voting Labour. “I think Boris has got something missing. He’s always been a liar,” she said, as a woman pushing a wheelchair past laughed and muttered of the prime minister: “Don’t even go there.”
A poll by JL Partners last weekend put Labour 20 points ahead of the Tories in Wakefield, currently a marginal seat, although officials in both parties said the race felt tighter. While most voters in the town expressed disappointment or anger in relation to the prime minister, not all have been convinced by Labour or its candidate, Simon Lightwood, a local health worker.
David Ladwitch, 37, said that while Johnson’s behaviour was “not great”, he was “a little bit bored” of the partygate saga and would probably vote Conservative. After participating in an online election event with the candidates, he said he “wasn’t convinced” by Labour because “they didn’t really say what they were going to do”.
He added that Wakefield city centre needs more investment and jobs. “It needs more TLC. I live in poverty, pretty much. I want to be able to get some work.”
Tony Miller, owner of nearby Miller’s Cards, said he suspected the hard left that dominated Labour under its previous leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was still pulling the party’s strings.
“I’m like everyone else, I’m not voting for someone I want — I’m voting against the ones I don’t want,” he added. “Boris has been disappointing, but you wonder if there’s anybody who could do it better. I can’t see anyone.”
Three miles away in the town of Horbury, Ryan Walker, who runs the Compu-Tech computer repair shop, said Labour had permanently lost his vote following Brexit. “I got told my opinion didn’t matter last time,” the Leave voter said of the party’s position after the EU referendum.
Walker acknowledged that Johnson’s behaviour during lockdown was “bad”, but said that most people had probably broken the rules at some point. He added that he might vote for the independent candidate, Akef Akbar.
Akbar, a solicitor and independent councillor, is running a prominent campaign with large banners across buildings on the approach to Wakefield city centre. Formerly a Conservative party member — he quit the party in March after publicly calling Johnson an “idiot” — he won a normally safe Labour council seat in Wakefield East in last year’s local elections. Campaigners speculate he could take votes from both parties in the by-election.
There is currently a “dim feeling” among residents, said Akbar. He added that people were “sick of national parties” and wanted an “alternative option”.
He also brought up the reason for the Wakefield by-election, which was prompted by the conviction of incumbent Tory MP Imran Ahmad Khan for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy, following a lengthy legal process.
“When you go on the doors, people say the last MP was a paedophile and [the party] should have seen it,” he said.
Conservative candidate Nadeem Ahmed has met with a mixed response on the campaign trail. On doorsteps in Ossett, a market town with a history of both mining and textiles, one woman opened the door to tell him: “You must be joking”, and added that the area had been “virtually unrepresented”.
But Ahmed insisted he was “not seeing the 20 point lead” suggested by the polls. “It’s going better than I would have expected at this stage,” he said.
He admitted “nobody was happy” about the Downing Street lockdown parties, but said the prime minister had “apologised” and “paid the fine”. “My people aren’t talking about Boris Johnson going or staying,” he said.
Asked whether he would have backed the prime minister in last week’s confidence vote, he paused. “I . . . I would, yeah. I believe at the end of the day he was democratically elected.”