7 May 2021

The Hartlepool by-election shows the Bubble still doesn’t get Boris

By Tom Martin

Last Saturday, I was lucky enough to get a seat at one of my favourite pubs and got talking to a friend of a friend who happened to be from Hartlepool. As a dyed-in-the-wool politico, I bit my tongue for as long as I could about the impending by-election and focused on enjoying my Guinness.

It was a relief, therefore, when the conversation eventually wended its way on to the topic without any intervention on my part. The man in question was a serving member of the British Army, as was his father before him, and both identified as “normal Labour voters” – or they did until Boris came along.

There’s no doubt the past month has had its share of problematic headlines for the Prime Minister. The Cameron/Greensill scandal lurched into a wider debate about cash for access and a row about the refurbishment of the flat above 11 Downing Street. Then there was what some thought would be a coup de grâce in the form of Dominic Cummings ‘let the bodies pile high’ claims. Whether the public were paying much attention to any of this seemed to be a secondary consideration for a Westminster media convinced that this was a moment of huge peril for the PM.

And yet, here we are on May 7 with the Conservatives having won in Hartlepool for the first time since the seat’s formation. The party also looks set to hold the Teesside mayoralty and, if Andy Street repeats the trick in the West Midlands, we could be talking about a perfect hat-trick for Boris (leaving aside, for a moment, issues north of the border).

Why, then, did the supposed crises of the last month seem to have had so little bearing on the electorate?

I am reminded of a great scene in Brexit: The Uncivil War, the dramatisation of the Brexit referendum, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings. Cummings visits, of all places, a pub to talk to voters. He shrugs off the protestations of the team around him, who implore him to instead study polls and focus groups to come up with a telling campaign message. Cummings laughs and informs them that to really understand what people think, the answer is simple. Go to a pub. Buy someone a drink. And listen.

I dare say the Westminster bubble has still not taken this advice on board. When we do see politicians and journalists talk to ‘real voters’, it is nearly always in manufactured settings for pre-arranged photo ops. When voters do occasionally go off-piste (see Gillian Duffy and Brenda from Bristol), the media tends to either shriek or laugh. But rarely does it listen. Cummings, for all his faults, understood that the first rule of politics is to listen, as only then can you truly understand what voters want.

And so back to the pub. I listened to the man from Hartlepool. We talked about rugby, his experience in the army, how we knew our mutual friend and many other topics. When we did move on to politics, I asked him why he planned to vote Conservative and not Labour. His response was simple: “I like Boris.” When asked if the recent headlines had coloured his thinking, he responded: “How does some wallpaper make any difference to Hartlepool?”

What does this tell us about the state of British politics and our PM? Firstly, it’s a reminder that there is always an element of controversy priced in with Boris. People identify with his roguishness; an inability to meet the standard of perfection that we expect from our politicians. Another thing voters have always liked about Boris is his focus on action, whether it’s building more homes in London, greenlighting HS2 or getting Brexit done. The latest addition to the list is the successful vaccine roll out and it was clearly this – and not talk of Westminster wallpaper – that was ringing in the ears of voters when they went to the polls.

The challenge that lies ahead is one of delivery. Boris has three years to show his newfound supporters that he has made good on his promises. Guiding the economy through a turbulent Covid recovery, delivering on the levelling up agenda and making significant progress on net zero will all be crucial. And if you want to know how the Prime Minister is faring, you could do worse than a trip to your local with an open mind. That’s something we can all raise a glass to in these strange times.

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Tom Martin is a Director of Quatro, a political communications agency focused on planning and property

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.