“He’s just a troublemaker” “He doesn’t chase things to the finish line” “He desperately wants you to think he’s one of us” My focus groups in Nuneaton and Stoke

My campaign focus groups this week were with voters from Nuneaton, held by the Conservatives since 2010, and Stoke-on-Trent South, captured by the Tories in 2017 and potentially fertile territory for Reform UK. They were conducted after the leaders’ TV debate, but before the D-Day debacle. All our participants voted Conservative in 2019 but put their chances of doing so again on 4 July somewhere between 3 and 5 out of 10: the people the Tories will need to bring back if they are to shore up their position before election day, according to my polls.


You get to a certain age, your ears prick up at that sort of thing


What had caught their attention in the last few days? “Calling 18-year-olds up for national service;” “Both sides saying the other side hasn’t got a clear plan;” “I don’t think a lot of the Conservative Party seem to have expected the announcement. That’s why it seems like a mass scramble;” “I saw the Tories mentioned stopping tax on pensions. You get to a certain age, your ears prick up at that sort of thing;” “I heard on the radio the Tories were talking about gender, whether people were male or female. I thought that was an odd thing to put in a manifesto;” “He’s supposed to be giving £20 million to new towns. I think Bedworth’s getting £20 million;” “The Liberal Democrat, I can’t even remember his name. I’ve seen him surfing, I’ve seen him go down a water chute. It just seems to be gimmicks every day. I’m not really sure what they’re about;” “They’re talking about taxes rising by £2000 if Labour take over, and Labour saying it’s all lies.”

In our Thursday night Stoke groups, around half had watched at least some of the leaders’ debates (“Love Island was on as well”). What did they think? “It was quite Americanised, very argumentative, a lot of backstabbing. But I did feel I learned some bits I didn’t know previously, like Labour will increase taxes. But generally speaking, I felt like Rishi Sunak came out on top;” “What came out strongly for me was that Rishi Sunak had evidence-based facts about what they’d done and what they were going to do, and Labour’s response was to refer to the past. If I’d heard more from Keir Starmer about what he was proposing, I’d have been able to come up with a more balanced viewpoint. It came out that that the Tories were clear and they’ve got a plan;” “Whether we think national service is a good idea or not, Rishi was saying ‘it’s a big idea and I’m pushing it forward because it’s new and I feel it would work. What’s your big idea?’ And Keir Starmer had no big idea. He had no ideas at all.”


He’ll add a bit of spice to the party


The groups had certainly clocked the emergence of Nigel Farage as leader of Reform UK. Several of them could see the appeal: “He’ll get his wooden spoon out and stir it all up. If he’s going to challenge the leaders of the two main parties to speak up and say what their actual manifesto is, that’s great. That’s brilliant for us as voters;” “He’s got a big pair of balls.”

A number mentioned his appearance on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here: “He wasn’t scared of talking about how he felt about things and he was a very strong character. I think that’s the sort of person we need to lead the country. We don’t want the dilly dallying, we want someone with strong ideas for the future. So I think more people like look at the Reform Party;” “It made me respect him more, the way he interacted with people. I always thought he was a bit non-PC but he was nice to people;” “He got quite a few people to like him because he got on with stuff, he didn’t moan;” “It’s a fine line. I want the prime minister to be relatable, I want him to be able to understand the problems of working people, but you don’t want them to take the eye off the ball because they’ve got a huge job. I want them to have a clear head, to trust that what they’re telling me is true and that you’re going to guide us and lead the country to a better place. So being on I’m A Celebrity matters not a jot to me.”

Farage’s instinct for the limelight made some doubt Farage’s reliability: “He was in UKIP before. A lot of people voted for him because he was for Brexit. Then when it came to the elections, he said he wouldn’t stand. So I thought, I trusted in you a little bit before, but then I felt like he’d let us down in a way, so I wouldn’t look at him again now;” “He’s too much involved in the dramatics with Donald Trump. I think he’s just out for himself;” “He’s just a troublemaker. I don’t see any benefit in stirring it up just for the show.”

Aside from immigration and one mention of energy bills, none could say which issues the party campaigned on: “It’s essential UKIP rebranded;” “It would be nice to see the manifesto for them, wouldn’t it? Then we can have a better idea what their actual plans are.”

Though the groups had clocked Reform UK’s surge in the polls, many doubted that this would translate into large numbers of votes and seats: “I think he’ll add a bit of spice to the party and challenge the status quo, but from an outcome perspective he’s a very small fish in a big pond;” “People generally play safe. At this stage, what would probably boost the polls is the idea of something different, because we all want something new, we don’t want to live like this anymore. But when it actually comes to holding that pencil in that booth, people get scared and go for what they know;” “We always see this kind of thing in the run-up to the election, there’s a third party that’s so close and everything. But by the time it gets to the election, everyone realises that to be able to have a government you need so many, so they always end up being Labour or Conservative. I don’t think any other party is credible, to be honest;” “I’m interested, but what you end up doing is splitting the vote, so nothing gets through and the country just sits on its arse until the next election.”

They were also sceptical of the idea of a Farage takeover of the Conservative Party: “He’ll try and push it too far to the right;” Everybody else in the Tory party probably thinks differently to the way Nigel Farage does, and I don’t think it would be a good mix. It would be a vote of no confidence pretty much straight away.”

Even so, several of these former Tories were open to the idea: “I don’t even know if there’s going to be a candidate in our area. It’s too early yet, but I wouldn’t write them off.” Could they end up in government one day? “Anything’s possible. I don’t think anyone thought Trump would be president. But he certainly made it, didn’t he?”

No-one was impressed by the milkshake assault. “It was dead disrespectful, that;” “If my child had done that to somebody, I’d go mad;” “You shouldn’t do it, regardless of who you are in politics;” “It seems to be a common theme. He gets a milkshake every now and then;” “I think it works in his favour. He probably organised it.”


He’s not chasing things to the finish line


Several participants still had good things to say about Rishi Sunak: “He’s not done anything to me. I think he comes across as a really nice man. He’s very professional;” “He comes across as a gentleman, actually.” For others, however, “he doesn’t quite get it. If Boris had an agenda he’d be tenacious and try and chase that down. Rishi comes across as one of those lofty ivory tower ones, well-meaning, floats the idea off and people give him ‘oh yeah, we’ll get that sorted,’ and he thinks it’s done. He’s not chasing things to the finish line himself, he’s trusting those civil servants who are in post forever and have their own agendas;” “He comes across as one of those that tries to slum it with the commoners, but doesn’t quite hit the mark.” For example? “He can’t use a hammer. Or a credit card machine;” “He asked a homeless person what he did for work. He’s like, ‘oh, what do you do in the business sector?’ And it’s some homeless guy he’s handing a sandwich to;” “I want someone who leads the country to have ambition and drive and have a powerful stance and make decisions, and he’s clearly a good decision maker because he’s able to make money. But I wish he wouldn’t pretend he understands working class people.”


That was your parents, that’s not you


The groups had a familiar litany of complaints about the Tories’ record, including the succession of leaders, covid contracts, broken promises, lockdown rule-breaking, the Truss mini-Budget, the cost of living, disunity, and NHS waiting times. Even so, few were convinced by the principal opposition: “The Labour leaflet we had was a QR code directing you to their manifesto, and when you got to it was just no depth to it. Absolutely pointless. Which is worrying;” “They’re complacent, as if they’ve already got it in the bag;” “They talk about cutting waiting lists and they say they’re going to get the money from closing tax loopholes, but they’ve been saying that forever and a day;” “He said they will bring down immigration but I think they’d be too soft with it. They’re going to welcome it, more so.”

If anything, Keir Starmer made it harder rather than easier to switch to Labour: “He’s used to battling and arguing and throwing a spoke in the wheel in parliament. But he needs to move away from arguing and start being very clear what his party are going to offer;” “He’s a barrister, and when you’re in court counteracting an argument you don’t need to tell people your plan, you just need to make people disbelieve the opposition. That’s what he tried to do in the debate;” “I don’t think he gives a lot away, does he? He doesn’t seem to show any sort of personality;” “The other night they were asked if you had to wait for surgery, would you go private? And Rishi said straight away, yes I would. Keir Starmer said no, I would go on the NHS. No he wouldn’t! If I could afford to go private I would go private, and someone who couldn’t afford it could go on the NHS. He desperately wants you to think he’s one of us. ‘My dad was a toolmaker, my mum was a nurse’, and I’m thinking, that was your parents, that’s not you.”


A tornado. He doesn’t care what’s in his path


Finally, if Rishi Sunak were a weather event, what kind of weather event would he be? “That annoying rain where you get soaked but you don’t realise. And he’s the only one with the umbrella;” “He’s like that kids’ book, A Series of Unfortunate Events;” “Cloudy with a chance of some sunshine. With temperatures varying.”

What about Keir Starmer? “A light breeze. Doesn’t seem to have an effect on anything;” “I think he’s frosty;” “Foggy and murky. You can’t see through him;” “You’ve got to have the umbrella and the hat and the sunscreen because you never know what’s going to happen.”

And Nigel Farage? “A hurricane. Or a tornado or a whirlwind. It doesn’t care what’s in his path. He’s going to blow through it anyway.”


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