Conservative voters have suggested they will stick with the party for the first in a series of crucial byelections for Boris Johnson, although many labelled the prime minister a serial U-turner and rule-breaker while lamenting the lack of an effective opposition from Labour’s Keir Starmer.
They are preparing to head to the polls from 7am on Thursday morning for the race to succeed James Brokenshire as MP for the south London suburban seat of Old Bexley and Sidcup.
A former cabinet minister, shopkeepers and people of most political persuasions were effusive in their praise of Brokenshire who had a 19,000 majority. While some suggested they would splinter off to other parties or stay at home, most told the Guardian they would stick with the Tories’ new candidate, Louie French.
Stephanie, a hairdresser, has always voted Conservative and will probably do so again on Thursday. She called Johnson an “idiot” – a view she said was shared by customers. “If we had a strong leader in opposition, I might be looking for a change in government – but better the devil you know,” she sighed.
City worker Michael associated Johnson with scandal, breaking rules and U-turns, raising reports that the prime minister attended a party in Downing Street during the second lockdown. Michael said the background he came from meant he “should be voting Labour”, but complained leader Keir Starmer had shown “no leadership”. “He just puts up objections but no solutions,” Michael explained, speaking alongside his electrician father, John, who identified as a “Tory voter” and called Johnson a “buffoon” but also “the best of a bad bunch”.
Marilyn, who volunteers in a charity shop, lamented that politicians are set on dragging each other into the mud. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian
Marilyn – a retired hospital worker who now volunteers in a charity shop – suggested she would back the Tory candidate, and wanted to see the same local focus from him as Brokenshire was known for. However she added that “integrity” was an attribute she wanted from the area’s next MP, lamenting that politicians seemed more set on dragging each other into the mud than dealing with more important issues, like funding the NHS and reducing waiting lists.
Another Conservative, Mike Griffiths, who is a retired property developer, told the Guardian that “here, whatever happens, it’ll be blue”. Griffiths said he was “not impressed” with Johnson, who he thought was gaffe-prone. He recalled speaking to a canvasser for French: “Her comments were that ‘they’ve heard that a lot’.”
Some voters admitted they would splinter off to other parties or stay at home.
Saleswoman Nicky said Johnson appeared to be “trying his best” but was still an “arse” and would probably not vote. Black-cab driver Paul admitted he would “probably have voted Conservative” but was instead going to back the Heritage party, which is led by a former Ukip London Assembly member.
“Johnson is an election winner – but he’s not a details man and that’s quite a big problem,” Paul said. “People are disappointed with the borders, Covid and scandals with PPE.” Meanwhile, retired accountant Dave said he would vote for Reform UK, and said of Johnson: “I’m not sure if it’s him or his partner making the decisions.”
Black-cab driver Paul admitted he would ‘probably have voted Conservative’ but was instead going to back the Heritage party, led by a former Ukip London Assembly member. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian
The byelection has become a battle of expectation management.
Tory sources admitted that the more their vote share was reduced by, the more questions would be raised about Boris Johnson’s leadership and calls for reform at the top of the party.
So in a bid to keep the prime minister’s position as secure as possible, government whips ordered Tory MPs to attend a “dawn raid” at 5am on polling day in the constituency to get out the vote.
One backbencher said Conservative Central Headquarters (CCHQ) were “shitting themselves”, and a party aide who has canvassed in the constituency told the Guardian that in a “solid” Tory-supporting area they visited, the “vote was incredibly weak”.
Big name cabinet ministers have been dispatched to shore up support, with those who have paid a visit in recent days including the justice secretary, Dominic Raab, the communities secretary, Michael Gove, and the education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi.
Eyebrows were also raised among Tory campaigners when it got to the end of the campaign and the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, had not once paid a visit to the seat. He is, however, understood to have held phone-banking sessions in support of Labour’s candidate, Daniel Francis.
Labour insiders have painted their election effort as an uphill battle, but stressed the party has not held the seat since 1945. They also suggested that negative news stories about government sleaze will not have had time to sink in until after the deadline for postal votes to be submitted.
A senior Labour source said: “We are hoping to do well, even though I do not think we will win. There is a deep sense of disdain for Boris, though not a huge movement towards Labour. But we expect a lot less to vote Tory, many will stay home, or vote for a smaller party like [Richard] Tice’s Reform, or the Greens. It is not likely to be enough to let us come through the middle but I don’t rule out the possibility, Chesham and Amersham means we can’t rule it out.”