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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Luke Tryl

‘I just don’t think he cares’: Workington Tory voters’ verdict on Rishi Sunak

Rishi Sunak at Conservative conference
From the Tory conference, the group had heard only about Rishi Sunak’s cancellation of HS2 – and their reaction was universally negative. Photograph: MI News/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

In the 2019 general election, the term “Workington man” was used to represent the group of lifelong Labour voters who dramatically switched to the Conservative party and spurred Boris Johnson’s victory across the “red wall” in the north and Midlands of England.

Nearly four years on, and after Rishi Sunak’s first conference speech as Tory leader, my research group More in Common spoke to first-time Tory voters in the Cumbrian town about their impressions of the prime minister and whether his attempt to present himself as a “change candidate” had landed.

Their verdict will be disappointing for the Conservatives. The public’s willingness to give Sunak a chance has disappeared. Far from the nuanced comments we heard in focus groups when he first came to power, when people were angry with the Tory party but willing to give Sunak credit for introducing the furlough during Covid and being a “safe pair of hands”, this group felt that the prime minister was invisible and unable to relate to the challenges facing the country.

Asked whether they thought Sunak could be the change they all felt Britain needed, it was Mike, a 30-year-old sales manager, who summed up the mood: “How can he say he’s going to bring change when he’s a multimillionaire? He and his missus just don’t understand the rest of the country.” Josh, a 25-year-old technician, added: “I just don’t think he cares about anyone other than his mates.”

For some, the prime minister’s tone in speeches and interviews was also starting to grate. A few mentioned the prime minister’s exchange with a junior doctor on LBC this summer as an example of him not showing enough respect.

From this week’s Conservative party conference, the group had heard only about the cancellation of HS2 – and their reaction was universally negative. Here the challenge for the government is not that this group were wedded to the idea of fast train travel – in most of our focus groups, big infrastructure comes close to the bottom of people’s levelling up wishlists. The problem instead was the symbolism of stopping the line at Birmingham, and what that said about the government’s views of the north. Sacha, 50, who works in cabin crew for an airline, explained: “They’ve said anything Birmingham upwards, we’re just not going to bother.” Dale, a 29-year-old account manager, asked: “Why doesn’t the north deserve it?” Madeline, 25, a nurse, wanted to know: “How can he make these big decisions and cancel the rail when the country never elected him?”

The promise to reinvest HS2 money in local rail projects fell on sceptical ears. The group were willing to accept it might be a better use of money, but after cancelling HS2 they just didn’t believe new investments would happen. As Danielle, a 37-year-old social worker said: “It’ll be another half-finished job.” She and the others we spoke to were not in the mood for promises of jam tomorrow.

While most of what we heard would be difficult listening for No 10, there were two bright spots for the government.

First, when played clips of Sunak’s conference speech, the group approved of lines about “life meaning life” for serious criminals, clamping down on benefit claimants who are able to work and making sure hospitals talk about men and women.

Second, even though almost all the participants in the group thought that Keir Starmer would be prime minister after the next general election – because “the country needs a change” – there was almost as much hostility to the leader of the opposition as there was to the current prime minister.

In some recent focus groups, people seemed to be warming to Starmer, but this group were openly frustrated he had not spelled out what he would do differently.

Josh called him “a solicitor who is quick to point the blame somewhere else”, Dale “couldn’t trust him as far as he could throw him”, while Sacha told us “they’re all the same and so I don’t know who I’ll vote for”. If the Labour leader is to win over this sceptical group, he will have to use next week to show the country not what is wrong, but how a Labour government may make things better.

Ultimately though, if those we spoke to reflect the public mood, the Tories leave their party conference in much the same state as they went into it: having lost a good deal of trust and struggling to hold those new voters they won in 2019.

That may change if, and when, the economy improves, but what should worry Conservative strategists the most is the extent to which much of what the government has to say is now falling on deaf ears, with very little appetite for giving the Tory party another shot.

  • Luke Tryl is the UK director of More in Common, a research group dedicated to building more united and inclusive societies.

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