78. Has Devon Dealt A Deadly Blow?

Peter Burke
Oxford For Europe

26 June 2022

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From Yorkshire and Devon to Rwanda and Bavaria. A serious drubbing leaves his own MPs feeling very exposed. Yet the PM doubles down.

Knocking on Devon doors as a LibDem canvasser was an eye opener. Tiverton and Honiton is a strongly conservative leaning area. Some voters remember the days when the old Liberal party was strong. But it was never strong enough to win: Tiverton and Honiton has been for 100 years the kind of constituency where all you needed to do was put a blue rosette on a donkey. And many would say that that is precisely what used to happen.

Tiverton, bucolic idyll but it can pack a punch (photo: PB)

However it was also obvious that change was in the air. Countless Tory voters assumed a pained expression and said they were faced with a genuine dilemma. They remained loyal to the party of their forebears but felt deeply betrayed by its leadership. For them the lies over Downing Street parties were just the tip of the iceberg, symptomatic of a deeper dishonesty, and enough to make them start doubting what they had been told about Brexit, the economy, levelling up and even what the Conservative party stood for. Talking to them, I felt I was pushing at an open door in saying they had no cause to feel guilty, that the party they voted for in 2019 no longer existed, and that perhaps a conservative defeat in this constituency would be a win-win, good for the constituency, good for the country and good for the Conservative party if it brought forward the day when a renewal could be achieved. That day, alas, must await a change at the top, perhaps even a return on Boris Johnson‘s part to his journalistic roots. Not of course, that such a return would be good for the average standard of British journalism.

However much Tories may try to gloss over it, the verdict in Tiverton and Honiton, and to a lesser extent in Wakefield, is a game changer. Only a very small minority of Tory MPs are sitting on seats that are safer than T&H, and the rest must now be seriously worried. They must be praying for a change in direction, and must cringe when they hear that the leader does not see it in the same way. Indeed there may be good reasons to suppose that the fatal blow will be dealt not by the voters of Devon but by Johnson’s own planet sized hubris. Since his election drubbing, Boris Johnson Johnson said, speaking in Rwanda, of any transformation on his part, “that’s not going to happen“. He then rubbed salt into the wound by saying that he expected to carry on , not only to a second but to a third election victory, ie into the 2030’s. (His spokesmen later, as so often happens, tried to dismiss this as a joke). Backbencher Andrew Bridgen declared this was “delusional”. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

A gift for understatement. Is the previously loyal Oliver Dowden speaking for the majority of his peers?

Ministers must have choked on their cornflakes at the thought of what they would say in tomorrow’s round of interviews, knowing that their boss had just managed to alienate voters even further. Or perhaps some of them will feel that the game is up and, with Oliver Dowden, will decide the time is right to jump ship. If they have sense they will not want to allow things to drag on for another year – the grace period which Tory rules allow a PM who has survived a confidence vote. That will leave any leadership change perilously close to the next election. I am assuming here that there is one and BJ does not, like Putin, whom many would see as his role model, try to put even that on indefinite hold. Now that a new 1922 Committee executive has to be elected, it is open to the party’s backbenchers – from all sides of the party – to elect a team which will abolish the amnesty and allow a real challenge. Can he squirm out twice?

At the G7. Do we have a PM who can lecture world leaders about doing the right thing?

Should he have left us in any doubt about his arrogance and hypocrisy, today we hear the same prime minister lecturing his opposite numbers in the G7 in Bavaria on taking a principled approach to Ukraine. Forget partygate, this is the month where the government is legislating to break international law over the Northern Ireland Protocol, and is in effect distancing itself from the European Convention on Human Rights, treating it as an optional guideline rather than a binding commitment – against howls of protest from Amnesty International, the Law Society and so many others at home and abroad. Does BJ really expect to be listened to with respect? If the other leaders are not laughing at him, it’s only because they are too polite.

Is the Daily Mail getting worried?

So perhaps the voters of Devon and Yorkshire have now finally seen through our prime minister. Just as importantly, perhaps they have learned what can be achieved by tactical voting, even without any formal pact. Labour’s vote share in Devon dropped dramatically, and far from being a bad reflection of the party, it is speaks well for the astuteness of Labour voters in the area. The mirror image applies in Wakefield. The fact that it has proven possible to defeat the Tories in their heartland is treated by the Daily Mail, not as painful lesson for the party, but rather as evidence of scandalously shady dealings by the Opposition (?!). That speaks volumes. BJ’s diminishing band of enablers are getting worried, and that perhaps means progressive forces are getting something right. Let’s hope that, like the results in May’s local elections, this is a big step on the road to an era of more sensible and quietly collaborative politics.

To read more about the movement for cross-party working, see the website of Compass, and this recent article about what has been happening locally.

The views stated here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe

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