Image of a tree blooming in pink flowers and in the background skyscrapers against a blue, cloudless sky.
Labour party staff and volunteers out campaigning in Wakefield in June. Photographer: Joanne Coates/Bloomberg
Design element serving as the series title. Text that reads Is the U.K. Levelling Up? over stylized hexagons with different colors.

Boris Johnson’s Support Fades Among New Tory Voters and Old

UK prime minister’s vote-winning power is under scrutiny on Thursday in two districts where his “levelling up” agenda has stalled

(This story was originally published on June 18. The by-elections in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton are taking place today.)

The politics of 42-year-old Brexit supporter David Hunt should worry Boris Johnson.

Hunt, a stay-at-home dad, helped the UK prime minister to victory in the 2019 general election, but plans to switch on Thursday to the opposition Labour Party in a special ballot in the pro-Brexit, northern England seat of Wakefield. That’s because of his revulsion at a series of law-breaking gatherings in Downing Street during the coronavirus pandemic that led to Johnson becoming the first premier found to have broken the law in office.

“They keep lying,” Hunt said. “People’s parents died and they were partying away. It’s so wrong.”

Six years to the day since the vote to leave the European Union that helped eventually propel Johnson to power, the by-election in Wakefield, and another in Tiverton and Honiton in southwest England will show how much damage “Partygate” has done to the electoral coalition that won him the Brexit vote and a landslide majority in 2019.

Image of a tree blooming in pink flowers and in the background skyscrapers against a blue, cloudless sky.
Horbury, Wakefield. Past polling has suggested a wide Labour victory is in the cards in Wakefield.
Photographer: Joanne Coates/Bloomberg

The premier built that win on a coalition of disaffected defectors from Labour in that party’s so-called Red Wall of former northern strongholds—including Wakefield—and traditional Tory voters from southern and rural seats such as Tiverton and Honiton. The portents aren’t good for Johnson, with signs of support fraying at both ends.

Both votes were triggered by scandals involving Tory incumbents. In Wakefield, where former MP Imran Ahmad Khan was jailed for sexual assault, the party trails in polling. And in Tiverton and Honiton, where Neil Parish resigned after being caught watching pornography in Parliament, the Liberal Democrats are bullish about their chances of overturning a huge Conservative majority.

The already gloomy—and worsening—economic backdrop doesn’t help Johnson. With inflation at a four-decade high, Britain is mired in a cost-of-living crisis that the Bank of England says will deepen—last Thursday it raised its forecast for the peak to more than 11% in October. Rising interest rates threaten to heap more pain on the UK economy, which the OECD predicts will grow less than any G20 country bar Russia next year.

Johnson’s pitch to win over disaffected former Labour voters such as those that handed him Wakefield in 2019 centered around “levelling up”—or closing the opportunity gap with richer parts of Britain by investing in infrastructure and public services.

But Bloomberg’s Levelling Up Scorecard shows Wakefield falling further behind London and the South-East on eight of 12 indicators since Johnson became premier. Compared to the capital, people in Wakefield face falling salaries, receive less public spending and transport investment, and face worsening crime.

Wakefield’s Levelling Up Scorecard

Bloomberg News compared the performance of UK constituencies against a population-weighted average for London and the South East of England
Note: The data are reported at various higher-level geographies, among them regional data for government spending. For these metrics, constituencies were matched to their corresponding geography (for example, Sedgefield to England’s North East region).
Source: Data compiled by Bloomberg News

The Tory candidate, Nadeem Ahmed, said that while Johnson is liked by many voters, the government needs to deliver on its economic promises and help struggling Britons. “We need to make sure people’s lives do improve,” he said.

Image of a tree blooming in pink flowers and in the background skyscrapers against a blue, cloudless sky.
Nadeem Ahmed with Attorney General Suella Braverman out canvassing in Ossett, Wakefield in June.
Photographer: Joanne Coates/Bloomberg

Wakefield turning red again—it previously voted Labour since the 1930s—would be ominous, suggesting the coalition of former Labour voters and long-time Tory faithful that Johnson built 2 1/2 years ago is crumbling. Past polling has suggested a wide Labour victory is in the cards.

If the three-dozen similar Red Wall constituencies were lost by the Tories at a national vote, all else being equal, the 80-strong majority Johnson secured in 2019 would all but evaporate.

Warning Signs

Conservatives are defending two seats that are falling further behind London and the South East of England

Behind in 2019 and falling or unchanged

Ahead in 2019 but falling or unchanged

Behind in 2019 but levelling up

Ahead in 2019 and gaining

Red Wall constituencies that flipped to Conservative

Scotland

NORTH

EAST

North

WEST

Wakefield

Yorkshire and

The Humber

Northern

Ireland

East Midlands

West Midlands

East of

England

Wales

South WesT

South East

London

Tiverton

and Honiton

Ahead in 2019

but falling or unchanged

Behind in 2019

and falling or unchanged

Ahead in 2019

and gaining

Behind in 2019

but levelling up

Red Wall constituencies that flipped to Conservative

Scotland

NORTH

EASt

Wakefield

North

WEST

Northern

Ireland

Yorkshire and

The Humber

East Midlands

West Midlands

East of

England

Wales

South West

South East

London

Tiverton

and Honiton

Ahead in 2019

but falling or

unchanged

Behind in 2019

and falling or

unchanged

Ahead in 2019

and gaining

Behind in 2019

but levelling up

Red Wall constituencies that flipped

to Conservative

Scotland

NORTH

EAST

Wakefield

North

WEST

Yorkshire

and The

Humber

Northern

Ireland

East

Midlands

West

Midlands

East of

England

Wales

South West

South EasT

London

Tiverton

and Honiton

Note: We have defined “Red Wall that flipped to Conservative” as those constituencies that voted for Labour in the last three General Elections prior to the 2019 election, but voted Conservative in 2019. Included are Hartlepool, which voted for Labour in 2019 but flipped to the Conservatives in the 2021 by-election, and Bury South, whose MP Christian Wakeford was elected as a Conservative in 2019 but switched to the Labour party earlier this year.

In Wakefield, Christine Tetley voted Tory in 2019 but doesn’t plan to do so on Thursday, citing the government’s ineffectiveness, including an aborted flight to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda.

“They just don’t seem to be doing anything,” she said. “And when they do try to do something, they get stopped.”

That reflects the fragility of the prime minister’s position. Earlier this month, he narrowly survived an attempt to oust him by his own Conservative Members of Parliament: 41% opposed him. Last week, his ethics adviser quit, saying the premier had put him in an “impossible and odious position.”

While a loss in Wakefield would suggest Johnson’s appeal to the new voters he won over in 2019 isn’t enduring, the result in Tiverton and Honiton may provoke more concern. The constituency has been Tory since its creation in 1997, and its two predecessor seats voted Conservative almost continuously since the nineteenth century.

Image of a tree blooming in pink flowers and in the background skyscrapers against a blue, cloudless sky.
Richard Foord, the Liberal Democrat candidate for the Tiverton and Honiton by-election, in May.
Photographer: Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images

Defeat would be seismic for the Tory mood. They’re defending a 24,000 majority, but the Liberal Democrats are buoyed by overturning Tory majorities of 23,000 and 16,000 at special elections in North Shropshire in December and Chesham and Amersham last June. “There is no such thing as a safe Conservative seat,” Liberal leader Ed Davey said last Thursday.

“The loss of Tiverton and Honiton would be a really crushing blow,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University London, adding that defeat in both votes would renew doubts over Johnson’s future.

The seat’s economic fortunes have fared little better than Wakefield during Johnson’s tenure. Bloomberg’s scorecard shows it losing ground to the capital in seven of 12 indicators, especially when it comes to government spending, transport expenditure, foreign investment and home affordability.

Tiverton and Honiton’s Levelling Up Scorecard

The fear among Johnson’s internal critics is that he’s shedding support from both wings of the 2019 voter base, on course to give up the gains in the Red Wall because Brexit is no longer a defining issue and the economy is suffering, while alienating the party’s historic support in the south. High-profile Tories such as Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab and former health secretary Jeremy Hunt are among those who risk losing seats in any Lib Dem resurgence at a general election.

In theory Johnson is safe for a year from a fresh leadership challenge under current rules, but if 150 Conservative MPs wrote to 1922 committee chair Graham Brady demanding another ballot, the request would be difficult to ignore, Bale said.

“Not that many more MPs have to move across into the no-confidence column to be able to get rid of him,” he said.