U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party is finding that even his core supporters are slipping away as he faces a special election in Corby in central England this week.
Jimmy Jewel, 78, said he’s always voted Conservative, though he may switch allegiance on Nov. 15 because he feels “betrayed” by the party and the consequences of entering the coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010. He said he sees a prime minister who has no idea about the real world.
“He’s out of touch. His inner sanctum seems to be cut off from the rest of the world,” Jewel said as he sipped a beer in the bar of the town’s Conservative Club, decorated with pictures of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. “He’s got no firm commitment. He keeps saying things and they never happen.”
Cameron’s approval ratings slumped as his government cut tax for the highest earners, Conservative lawmakers bickered over policy toward the European Union and as the economy failed to meet forecasts for growth, forcing the extension of an austerity program to at least 2017.
The contest for the Corby district was triggered by the resignation of Louise Mensch, who won the seat from the opposition Labour Party in the 2010 election with a majority of 1,895 votes out of 54,180.
Whether the Tories can hold the seat is being seen by both parties as a test of their strategies in the run-up to the 2015 general election.
The Conservatives, who have sent Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, Foreign Secretary William Hague and Cameron to join the campaign, are looking to use more positive economic news, such as the ending of Britain’s double-dip recession in the third quarter, and the prospect of a higher-spending, higher-taxing Labour government to win voters.
A poll of 1,503 voters in the constituency by former Conservative deputy chairman Michael Ashcroft in the week to Oct. 18 put Labour on 54 percent of the vote, up 15 points from 2010, and the Conservatives on 32 percent, down 10 points. Half of those who said they were switching from Cameron’s party said it was because they were “not happy about what the Conservatives are doing in government,” the telephone survey. Only a quarter of respondents said they were satisfied with the job Cameron’s doing.
Odds offered by bookmaker William Hill Plc show a victory for Labour’s Andy Sawford as a virtual certainty at 1-100, meaning a successful stake of 100 pounds would win only 1 pound. Tory candidate Christine Emmett is at 20-1.
The traditionally Labour-supporting former steel town of Corby, 90 miles (145 kilometers) north of London, is surrounded by Conservative-voting towns and villages. The area remained in Labour hands for more than 30 years after World War II, though it elected a Tory three times in the 1980s and 1990s.
Labour sees the seat as a microcosm of the whole country and a test of the “one-nation” vision set out by its leader, Ed Miliband, in his party-conference speech last month.
Labour can only win by appealing across traditional party boundaries, Miliband said, arguing that Cameron’s policies, such as the cut in the top rate of income tax to 45 percent from 50 percent announced in March, favor the rich.
“We’re trying to build support right across the area; we’ve been talking and listening to people,” Sawford said as he went house-to-house speaking to voters in the village of Cottingham. “There’s everything in this constituency -- small, very rural villages, the old boot-and-shoe towns, Oundle public school, through to Corby itself.”
The region was once a center of footwear manufacturing, while the public school -- British parlance for the most exclusive fee-paying educational establishments -- can trace its history to the 16th century.
“We’re fixing the mess that Labour made of the economy,” Osborne said on a visit on Nov. 2. “Here in Corby and East Northamptonshire you see unemployment coming down, people in work, apprenticeships up -- and it’s because we’re dealing with the debts that Labour left behind that we’re able in invest.”
In Corby’s shopping center, which is dominated by bargain clothes stores, pawnbrokers and charity shops, there is evidence that Osborne’s message is not getting through.
“Conservatives promise everything to get into power and deliver nothing,” said 2010 Conservative voter Greg Baker, 67, who lives in a village outside the town. “They’ve hit everybody except themselves -- pensioners, everyone on benefits, the disabled -- while millionaires get away scot-free.”
Baker said he will vote for the U.K. Independence Party, which seeks to pull Britain out of the EU, and will not return to the Tories until Cameron steps aside.
UKIP, which scored 6 percent -- one point ahead of Cameron’s Liberal Democrat coalition partners -- in Ashcroft’s poll, says it’s benefiting from anger at the Conservatives over Europe, immigration and spending cuts.
“The Tories are not giving them what they want, they feel there are far too many U-turns,” UKIP candidate Margot Parker said while out canvassing support. “There’s a definite move to change, they feel betrayed by Labour and don’t trust Cameron.”
For Jewel, a former soldier and construction worker who still works part-time 13 years after he reached retirement age, Cameron has given too much to the Liberal Democrats in the interests of holding together the coalition government.
In this he’s in tune with some of Cameron’s lawmakers, who say his coalition partners are blocking Conservative priorities including an overhaul of human-rights laws, reductions in welfare and cutting regulation for business. They joined with Labour to defeat the prime minister in a House of Commons vote on Oct. 31 on the EU budget.
“The Liberal Democrats are a left-wing party,” Jewel said. “The coalition is the worst thing we ever did.”