For James Morley, the news that prime minister Boris Johnson and his chancellor Rishi Sunak had been fined for breaking coronavirus rules only confirmed his worst suspicions.
“The PM is not beyond reproach — he is not above the Queen, he’s not above the law,” said the 34-year-old who runs a games shop in the market in Leigh, a town 10 miles west of Manchester in northern England. “He has broken the law, he should go. He won’t do it but he should walk.”
Johnson this week became the first serving prime minister in British history to be found to have broken the law, following the decision by the Metropolitan Police to issue him with a £50 fixed penalty notice as part of their investigation into coronavirus gatherings in Whitehall.
Cabinet ministers and a handful of backbenchers have publicly rallied behind the prime minister, arguing that Johnson has apologised for his misjudgement and that keeping him in office to handle the Ukraine conflict ought to be the country’s priority.
Yet within the party there remains trepidation as to whether public frustration over partygate will erode support in hard-fought areas such as Leigh that were once part of Labour’s “red wall” but switched to the Tories at the last election. The first gauge will be next month’s local elections, where more than 4,300 seats are up for grabs across England.
Voters’ mood in Leigh, which in 2019 elected James Grundy as its first Conservative MP with a majority of 1,965, was mixed. While residents were unanimous in the belief that Johnson had broken the law, many were torn as to whether the fine marked a momentary lapse in judgment or was indicative of an individual unfit to lead.
“He should be sacked — we shouldn’t be waiting on him to resign,” argued Thelma Williams who works in Leigh market. The 69-year-old admitted that she had always been slightly sceptical of Johnson. “He just lies all the time.”
Gail Bonnington, 81, was also frustrated with Johnson’s handling of partygate, describing the situation as “daft”. “They should have all known better — I was on my own for a year,” she said, recalling how isolated she felt during the pandemic.
Yet she was willing to give the prime minister the benefit of the doubt, arguing that “nobody else” could have done a better job in the pandemic followed by a war. “He has done a lot of good”, she said, adding that she voted for Johnson in 2019 and future “partygate” revelations would not deter her from supporting the Conservatives.
Morley, the games shop owner, however, is so frustrated with the broader political climate he has put himself forward as an independent candidate in Leigh East at next month’s elections.
“The ward I would represent if elected would be where I work and live,” he said. “I don’t see the councillors enough and I don’t see enough inward investment in the area at all.”
Sir John Curtice, a professor at Strathclyde university, noted that in Brexit-leaning red wall seats such as Leigh the Conservatives were able to unify the leave vote behind them in 2019.
Yet those who lent their vote to the party in 2017 or 2019, are “likely to be among the least loyal to the party”, Curtice warned, adding: “Only around 55 per cent of Leave voters are backing the party at present,” he said.
With inflation now at a 30-year-high of 7 per cent, some Leigh residents said that partygate was an unnecessary distraction.
“It was a 10-minute gathering — he [Johnson] popped in and popped out of a room”, argued Albert Scholes, 77, who said that he backed Johnson for the time being but wanted action on the bread and butter issues facing the country. “Let’s get on with it — let’s get the cost of living down again, let’s get the gas and electricity cheaper.”
Rhys Aspinall was less optimistic about the prime minister’s ability to help struggling households. “I think everyone is a bit sick of Boris Johnson,” the unemployed 22-year old said. “Price of housing, low wages, everyone seems to be struggling”.
Unanswered questions surrounding the prime minister’s honesty combined with rising prices and taxes, have reinforced the local disillusionment with politics, argued Kevin Anderson, a Labour and Co-Op councillor for Leigh South.
This is particularly true in an area where people were already feeling left behind by the central government, he added.
“I think places like Leigh, Wigan, St Helens are areas that are stuck between big cities of Liverpool and Manchester . . . [and] have missed out on core investment from successive governments over the past 20 years or more.”
According to Patrick English, associate director at pollster YouGov, voting outcomes in red wall seats will be a key factor in determining a party’s wider success across the country. “If you carry England you carry the red wall and if you carry the red wall you carry England,” he said.
The latest national polls show the Conservatives are on about 33 per cent compared to Labour’s 37 per cent.
English warned that the drip feed of negative headlines on issues ranging from inflation to new fixed penalty notices for the prime minister could eventually chip away at Conservative support.
“The specific number of fines won’t be massively important for the average voter,” he added. “But it will form part of a culminating effect that will in the long term hamper Johnson’s ability to reconnect with voters and gain their trust when pushing through his agenda.”
Many within the Conservative party are quietly bracing for a bruising result in the local elections as the true impact of the national insurance increase and rising household bills becomes clear.
“The local elections could be very challenging with some seats in the capital looking quite difficult,” one Tory insider admitted.
“People made up their minds a long time ago about the PM and the parties,” another Tory party strategist argued. “Now the cost of living is at the front of people’s minds and that poses the biggest problem for us”.
Additional reporting by Sebastian Payne
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