“It’s a metaphor for the whole Conservative government”: My focus groups in Newquay, Plymouth and NE Somerset

My final round of campaign focus groups takes us to three seats in the south west of England with notional five-figure Conservative majorities: St Austell & Newquay (Steve Double), Plymouth Moor View (Johnny Mercer), and North East Somerset and Hanham, whose redrawn boundaries pose a big challenge to Jacob Rees-Mogg. In a region that was once a Liberal Democrat heartland, Labour are now the main challengers to the Tories in all three seats.


If they can monetise it and steal it, they will do


The week’s revelations about betting on the election date dominated recent recollections among our participants, all of whom voted Tory in 2019: “It’s a metaphor for the whole Conservative period in government. If they can monetise it and steal it, they will do, and they did. And this time they got caught;” “They look after each other, give money to their mates, give tips to their mates;” “Serious lack of judgment. They weren’t even intelligent enough to get someone else to do it for them.” Most did not think Rishi Sunak was implicated in this particular scandal (“I’d like to think he’s not, but you just don’t know. You can’t trust them;”), but this was beside the point: “They should be there doing a job and we should trust what they’re doing. But it seems like on every occasion, they’re breaking the law and getting away with it;” “He gave his wife £100,000 in furlough and she didn’t pay taxes and he went along with that;” “It’s like the parties during covid when we were told not to do something, and the politicians didn’t take a blind bit of notice and did things we couldn’t do. It seems to be an ongoing thing from that;” “You’ve had someone in the Labour party gambling now as well and Starmer got rid of him straight away. So he responded very much quicker than Rishi did.”


It’s the most I’ve ever seen him looking natural


Otherwise, specific stories people remembered included D-Day, Sunak saying his family “struggled as a child because they couldn’t afford Sky TV”, his Adidas trainers, his encounter with the sheep, “getting wet without an umbrella”, and Keir Starmer “posting a picture of himself and his wife at the Taylor Swift concert. And it’s the most I’ve ever seen him looking natural.” But with a week still to go, there was a sense that people were struggling to concentrate: “I don’t know if it’s because the football is on, but it doesn’t seem like it’s the main focus of the news. Or maybe I’m just watching it at the wrong times.”

However, some more political events had broken through, such as the emergence of Reform UK and various policy pledges from various parties including extra GP appointments, tax thresholds, national insurance, no-fault evictions, national service, pensions and support for carers. Welcome though these often were in principle, they were always taken with a heavy dose of salt: “He’s saying everyone is going to have a dentist. It won’t happen;” “You feel like you’ve heard it before.”

All three incumbents had a positive profile, including Rees-Mogg (“He’s got even more money than Rishi, probably, but he’s still got a heart. When we had the floods a few years back he came down to see people and said right, here’s my mobile, if anyone has any problems let me know and I’ll come down and help out. And he kept to his word”). However, nobody said this would be enough to sway their vote which would be dominated by the national picture.


If it was that bad, how come they kept winning?


Sunak and the government had some defenders: “It’s an accumulation of bad timing. Everyone’s blaming him but he’s trying to resolve things and make a crappy situation better;” “They looked after us pensioners with the triple lock;” “I like what they did with the childcare. It’s starting to roll in slowly;” “The minimum wage has improved;” “They introduced gay marriage, didn’t they? That can’t be a bad thing;” “There was the vaccine rollout, which they’ve definitely told us about a few times;” “They supported our business during covid;” “You can go to jail for longer if you hurt an animal. That was pretty cool. But that’s my only thing.” Some argued the current opprobrium was not wholly deserved: “People say it’s 14 years of chaos, but how come they got elected four times? If it was that bad, how come they kept winning? They’ve only really lost it since covid;” “You reflect that probably our greatest leader, Churchill, won the war for us and was hoiked out afterwards. It shows you how fickle we are. I remember watching during covid and thinking, I wouldn’t have that job for all the money in China. Or is it tea?”

However, many in the groups were thinking of switching away from the Tories, some for the very first time. Specific reasons varied, but followed common themes of broken trust, lack of delivery, instability and the feeling that the government had run its course: “We’ve had four different prime ministers. If they can’t decide who’s going to be the leader it doesn’t give you much confidence, does it?” “NHS, schools, roads, if you want to get a passport – everything’s broken;” “They talked about controlling immigration, but they haven’t done it, have they?” “The tax burden is so high;” “They spent £350 million on Rwanda and only two people have gone. It’s absurd;” “I’m waiting for surgery, and I got an appointment for 5 July 2026. They say waiting lists are coming down but they’re just taking people off lists and giving them dummy appointments;” “When Truss was in I was going for a remortgage and we got caught in the mix of that and obviously it killed us with the interest;” “I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint a moment of ‘that’s when they messed up’. I think it’s just too long.” Though there was some praise for Sunak, especially as chancellor (“I had a soft spot for him because of the furlough system”), people wondered about his tax affairs, or found him unrelatable or, as one put it, “quite cold. Very corporate.”


He must be a clever cookie but he comes across as a scared rabbit


However, enthusiasm for Keir Starmer and Labour were very hard to come by. A few praised him for dealing with antisemitism in the party and one was actually encouraged by the seeming absence of concrete commitments: “It means he’s not just saying what people want to hear, which is a bit more authentic. He may not be completely leader material but who is? Let’s be honest.”

But there were plenty of doubts about Starmer: “He’s wishy-washy. He goes back on what he says;” “I’d say he was a ditherer. I’m not sure he’s capable of making a decision;” “They were all on Question Time the other week and he didn’t quite have the answers;” “He didn’t run Corbyn down when he was leader. He said ‘I didn’t want him but I stayed so I could work in behind him’. It was a bit two-faced;” “He keeps saying his father was a toolmaker, but he owned the factory;” “He defended the one with the cigar, Jimmy Savile. And another one as well, Gary Glitter or Rolf Harris or someone;” “He must be a clever cookie because of all the positions he’s held, but he comes across as a scared rabbit in the headlights on TV;” “In 1997, change was in the air, all this enthusiasm. Now I feel it’s just ‘get them out’. They’re in the right place at the right time because on another day he couldn’t run a bath.”


I don’t think a lot will change. And people will still be moaning


These doubts extended to what Labour might do (or not do) in government. These often concerned tax (“When they get into power they’ll say ‘we’ve seen the books, it’s worse than we thought;” “He goes on about VAT and income tax, but he never mentions council tax. Funding for these things has got to come from somewhere”), defence and security, ULEZ (“I’m worried they might try and roll it out across Britain”), immigration, gender identity, unrealistic promises (“the 400,000 appointments stuck out to me, but I don’t know where they’re coming from”) and a suspicion that a Starmer administration might try to unwind Brexit. Few hoped for very much: “It would be nice for a fresh start but if they get in I don’t think a lot would change. And people will still be moaning.” Even so, for some it came down to one thing: “We need change, don’t we? The most important thing is we need change. He can’t do any worse, can he?”

One possible glimmer of hope for the Conservatives in these seats was that not everyone was sure who constituted the principal local opposition, especially in Cornwall where the Liberal Democrats had a long history. Several had noticed and been somewhat impressed by Ed Davey, and remarked on his commitment to his disabled son and his generally good-humoured approach: “Every day he did a waterslide, didn’t he? He brought a bit of fun into it.” What about policies? “No, I don’t remember any of them. But he does a good waterslide;” “Look at the videos they’re making. They just make you laugh. Is that what they’re supposed to do?” As in Oxfordshire a couple of weeks ago, some said the party’s record in local government put them off: “Keynsham is one of their wards and they can’t even get the high street right. We’ve had over a hundred people taken to hospital because of the cycle lane and the pavement.”


He’s probably done more than most in terms of making an impact


Nigel Farage and Reform UK also had some possible supporters: “He’s the only one who came out and held his own against the BBC the other day. Unlike Starmer and Sunak, who were both like a bit of wet lettuce;” “As a politician, from what I remember with UKIP and Brexit he’s probably done more than most in terms of making an impact on our lifestyle;” “I’m happy for him to be around because he makes interesting points, like turning green too quickly – we’re trying to stop coal fires, so we stop our steelworks, so the steelworks have gone to India and China, where they are coal-fired, so the carbon footprint is even bigger;” “He comes up with interesting ideas like raising the tax threshold to twenty grand. It’s never going to happen, but it’s interesting to hear what he’s got to say. It’s something different;” “I like the way that he stirs the pot.”

Though many liked what they had heard, this would not always be converted into votes: “I’m concerned it would be a wasted vote because he’s coming into the running too late in the day;” “You hear Reform is a limited company rather than a political party, so is he just doing this to make a load of money?” “If he had a bigger following, I would definitely vote for him, but I’m on the fence. I’ll probably Conservative to keep Labour out;” “He says some things I agree with slightly and then sometimes it’s ‘Jesus, that’s a bit much’;” “He knows he’s not going to get in anyway, so he can say what he wants;” “I saw a picture of Vladimir Putin sitting at his desk and behind him is a photo of Nigel Farage saying ‘employee of the month’. I thought that was quite funny.”

A few were concerned about the idea of a Labour “supermajority”, whose consequences they feared could include dismantling Brexit, expanding immigration or changing the electoral system. However, some liked the idea of a very large majority to overcome vested interests that might otherwise hinder the new government: “The Tories put a limit on the number of wind farms but Labour want to do more on that. They’ll need quite a few seats because a lot of people don’t want to make the change or spend the millions it will take. A lot of people are against it.” However, few if any of those who were already inclined to switch from the Conservatives said the idea of a Labour landslide made them consider switching back.

If the result is as expected next week, what would be the Conservatives’ epitaph? “Tough gig;” “Failure;” “Scandal;” “Very messy;” “Should have done better. Could have done better;” “Very sad love story. With an unhappy ending.”


The one who used to headbutt people


Finally, now that the Euros are in full swing and with Wimbledon starting on Monday, if Nigel Farage were a sports personality, which sports personality would he be? “Roy Keane. The one who used to headbutt people at Man United. I remember someone didn’t turn up for training because his missus had a baby and he said, well, he’s not breastfeeding, is he?” “Tyson Fury. Brash and loud, that sort of person;” “Joey Barton. Causes chaos and conflict;”


Ian Wright. He’s super-confident but he can’t stop talking.


What about Keir Starmer? “Steve Davis. Steve ‘Interesting’ Davis;” “Geoffrey Boycott. Regardless of what he scored, he just stayed there;” “Brian Clough. It was all mouth really, wasn’t it, what he was going to do with the team and everything;” “David Beckham, because of the hair.”

How about Ed Davey? “Bill Beaumont. Charming, presentable and pretty real;” “Definitely a rugby player. He’s going in the ruck;” “I think he’d be the mascot prancing on the field in his tiger outfit.”

And Rishi Sunak? “Andy Murray. A bit dull and never fit to play;” “Wayne Rooney. Nice enough person but a hopeless manager;” “Most of the Man United squad, overpaid and underachieving;” “Is there a marbles championship? Maybe he’s good at marbles.”


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