There was a clear message to Boris Johnson outside a public meeting to hear from candidates at the Tiverton and Honiton by-election. A group turned up with a giant banner spelling out ‘The Party’s Over Prime Minister’, referring to questions over his leadership following revelations about Downing Street parties during the pandemic.
Edward Oldfield www.devonlive.com
The stunt outside Tiverton Community Arts Theatre was the idea of account manager Rob Corden. He borrowed the banner from a friend in Newquay, who had put it on a barn. Mr Corden, 42, said: “We are all a bit worried about our political culture. We are all a bit fed up. What did it for me, was Nadine Dorries telling backbenchers to be mindful of Tory donors who had threatened to withdraw funding. I don’t think they represent the people, only the interests of the small elite.”
The message was held by supporters of the community group Local Independents for Tiverton. One woman said: “We’re the electorate, and we’ve had enough of his lies, his corruption and his amorality, and it’s time he went.”
The four candidates at the election meeting, including Conservative Helen Hurford, were already inside the building when the banner arrived. But the issue of Downing Street parties, and the prime minister’s character, cropped up during questions from the public in the 90-minute session at the 300-seat theatre, which is part of Tiverton High School, on a warm Thursday evening.
It was the only public meeting in the run-up to the vote for the Tiverton and Honiton seat on Thursday, to replace Conservative Neil Parish who resigned after watching porn on his phone in the House of Commons chamber. It was chaired by George Parker, a former pupil at the school, who was flanked by the Conservative Helen Hurford and the Green Party’s Gill Westcott on one side, with Labour’s Liz Pole and Liberal Democrat Richard Foord on the other.
One questioner asked the candidates for their “personal view of the moral character of Boris Johnson” following the resignation of his second ethics adviser, which triggered an uproar of shouting, cheers and whistles from the lively audience. Ms Pole said the “lies” and “brazenness” left her almost speechless. “People are just so upset about it, it is such a stain on British politics.” She added: “Boris Johnson has got to go.”
Ms Westcott was concerned that the prime minister “might be seen as one bad apple” but pointed out the Conservative Party voted him in as leader “knowing that he was a liar” and had confirmed him in place when he won a confidence vote. She accused the party of voting to increase poverty by ending the £20 Universal Credit uplift. “They are OK with hungry children, OK with changing the ministerial code,” she added, to shouts and cheers from the audience.
Ms Hurford described ‘Partygate’ as “very Westminsterly”, and said her understanding of the resignation of the second ethics adviser Lord Geidt was due to a commercially sensitive issue. She added: “With regard to our prime minister, I believe the pledges he makes.” She had to speak over a barrage of heckling as she pointed to government achievements. She listed the Covid vaccination programme, £37billion of financial aid to tackle the cost of living crisis, and support for Ukraine against Russia, which had brought praise from the Ukrainian president. Ms Hurford concluded her assessment of Mr Johnson with: “I have no concerns that his pledges are honest.”
Mr Foord for the Liberal Democrats pointed out Mr Johnson was the first prime minister in history to have broken the law. He said: “148 MPs who see him up close and personal voted that they had no confidence in him as the leader of the party. If they have no confidence in him as the leader of the party, why on earth should we have confidence in him as the prime minister of our country?” Mr Foord said the election was a chance for voters to “get the prime minister out.”
A £40million rebuild for Tiverton High School was top of the agenda at the meeting, which was organised by the campaign group Fund Our Tivvy High. The meeting heard that a site has been identified and given outline planning permission, but it was waiting for a decision on funding from the government. A Labour plan to rebuild the school was scrapped by Michael Gove, the education secretary in 2010 when the coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats came to power. All the candidates agreed that the scheme needed to go ahead, but Mr Foord questioned why it had not happened in the 12 years since 2010 when Tiverton had a Tory MP, arguing the town had been bypassed because it was a safe Conservative seat, while Ilfracombe in the marginal North Devon constituency had been given a new school.
The issue focussed attention on the central campaign messages of the Tories and Liberal Democrats. Ms Hurford, a former primary school head teacher, said education funding was a top priority, and argued she was the only candidate who could work with the government to get things done for Tiverton and Honiton. Mr Foord said the Conservatives had taken the area for granted, and the election was a chance to send a message that people wanted change.
On the cost of living crisis, Ms Westcott said the Greens were calling for a £40 increase in Universal Credit, but it needed a long-term solution. Ms Pole said Labour had led on the issue, arguing for a cut in VAT on fuel and a windfall tax on oil firms which the government had eventually done. Mr Foord said a weekly shop had risen by £25 in the last year, while wages had effectively fallen by £65 as energy prices increased. The Liberal Democrats proposed a 2.5 per cent cut in VAT, which would put £600 “back in people’s pockets immediately”. Ms Hurford described it as an unprecedented global crisis which the government had responded to with a £37billion package of financial aid, giving £1,200 to the most vulnerable, and £400 off fuel bills for everyone.
A questioner raised the issue of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda. She described it as “disgraceful”, adding: “I personally feel ashamed at the moment.” Ms Pole described it as “unthinkable”, and Mr Foord said the £500,000 flight was a “gimmick”. Ms Hurford condemned the people smugglers sending people across the Channel from France, and suggested the Rwanda policy would deter people from using illegal routes of entry to the UK.
Outside the theatre, it was unclear how many people had been influenced by what they heard in the debates. One 19-year-old, who will be voting for the first time on Thursday, said he was disappointed by the amount of heckling by people hostile to the Conservatives. He said he was sympathetic to Boris Johnson, who has been getting “a pretty rough time”. One Conservative supporter said it had been a “rough crowd” for their candidate who had handled it well, although other bystanders described her performance as disappointing.
Political commentators are suggesting that the Liberal Democrats are poised to overturn the Conservative majority of more than 24,000 from the 2019 General Election. The Liberal Democrats are cautious about the prospects of making it their third byelection victory in recent months, with a report of their internal polling earlier this week putting them just behind the Tories, but they feel victory is within reach.