‘It doesn’t matter who takes over’: Cheltenham unswayed by Tory leadership race

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

With its neat roads of Regency houses and bustling town centre, Cheltenham might not seem the obvious place where the Conservative leadership candidates should worry overly about the cost of living. But for Lynn, a 63-year-old local woman, the crisis is very real.

The former fishmonger, who is looking for new work, said she plans to “near enough” switch off her gas central heating for the entire winter, something only possible because her husband, who was disabled, died two years ago.

“He had to keep warm, but I can just sit there with a blanket over me,” she said, escaping the 34C heat on a shady bench equidistant from the middle class high street trinity of John Lewis, M&S and Pret a Manger. “It’ll be like going back to the 1940s. If he was still alive, I would be totally bankrupt.”

Asked for her thoughts on Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, who were facing off in a hustings event at the town’s racecourse that evening, Lynn replied with a bitter laugh: “It doesn’t matter who takes over. The Conservative party has been too damaged by Boris Johnson – and they all just went along with it.”

For all the focus on red wall seats like Darlington, where the contenders held their last hustings, on Tuesday, it is arguably places like Cheltenham that should exercise Conservative minds just as much.

In 2019, the incumbent Tory MP, the former solicitor general Alex Chalk, held off the Liberal Democrats by just 981 votes, and one local Conservative conceded they expect to lose the seat by 5,000-plus votes next time.

Cheltenham, like other so-called blue wall seats where the Lib Dems are busy hoovering up the support of more moderate former Tory voters disillusioned with Johnson, is particularly pertinent given how Truss and Sunak have tacked even further towards hard-right populist policies.

Another Tory activist said that while the 500 or so local party members who will help choose the next PM are receptive to talk of tax cuts, culture wars and curbs on immigration, most voters feel differently.

“My guess is Truss is ahead here, though only slightly,” they said. “But I think we’re in big trouble whoever takes over. It’s all feeling very 1997 – death by a thousand cuts.”

Sitting in a town centre pub converted from an imposing former courthouse, Max Wilkinson, a local Liberal Democrat councillor who competed against Chalk in 2019 and will also fight the next election, says the imminent change of leader has not overly changed voter sentiment.

“Since they deposed Johnson, nothing has changed on the doorstep,” he said. “Johnson was driving people away, but it’s the failures over areas like the NHS and the cost of living that is enduring.”

Wilkinson says he expects Truss to win, and also to prove toxic to local voters, especially if she, as hinted, pushes to shut down an investigation into whether Johnson misled parliament in claiming he knew nothing about lockdown-breaking parties.

The leadership contest, Wilkinson argues, is taking place in a “totally parallel universe” to that experienced by most locals: “Conservative voters and Conservative members are extremely different people. This is a problem for the party. They haven’t really grasped that the people they need to retain are just interested in other stuff.”

Back in the sweltering high street opinion is inevitably more mixed. Olga Campbell, originally from Lviv in Ukraine but who has lived in the town for two decades, was so enamoured with Johnson’s support for her homeland that in last May’s local election she voted for the very first time.

“For 20 years I ignored politics, but when I saw what Boris Johnson did, me and my son both went and voted Conservative,” the 44-year-old stylist said, saying she was “very sad” he had been ousted.

“For me, he represents the English people. He’s honest. From my experience, the English sometimes don’t like that frank way of speaking. But he’s straightforward, he says what he thinks. And I love people like that. In some ways I’m like that, too.”

In contrast, David Bartlett, a 49-year-old banker who describes himself as “a massive swing voter – I’ve voted Labour, Lib Dem, Tory and Green” – says he has now turned permanently from the Conservatives. He said: “I was so appalled by Boris Johnson I’ve even stepped back from following the leadership contest.”