Sleaford ​​and North Hykeham voters express impatience over Brexit

Unlike in Richmond, London, byelection in Lincolnshire could see revolt over pace and firmness of Theresa May’s march out of EU

Zac Goldsmith and Stephen Phillips were Tory MPs with two of the most comfortable majorities in the country until they triggered shock parliamentary byelections this autumn. But the similarities between their seats – Richmond in south-west London, and Sleaford and North Hykeham in Lincolnshire – end there.

While Goldsmith was ousted by Liberal Democrats riding a wave of anti-Brexit sentiment last week, voters in Sleaford, who go to the polls this Thursday, appear far from desiring a revolt against Theresa May’s march out of the EU. In fact, many in the largely rural Lincolnshire seat seem to want a hard Brexit, and they want it now.

That means the main candidates are fighting a battle to appear the most anti-EU, with Ukip leaflets relentlessly painting the Tories as “Brexit backsliders” and Labour’s candidate keen to highlight his willingness to trigger article 50 despite having voted to remain. Only the Lib Dem candidate is concentrating on the 40% of voters in the constituency who backed remain last June.

The Conservative choice, Caroline Johnson, appears to have all the right credentials to appeal in a true blue Tory heartland. She is a paediatrician, lives locally with her family and, crucially for the party, keeps stressing that she voted to leave the EU.

Caroline Johnson
The Tory candidate for Sleaford and North Hykeham, Caroline Johnson. Photograph: David Sillitoe/for the Guardian

But she has been left a tricky legacy by Phillips, who was elected for a second time in 2015 with a 24,000 majority. Although the barrister also voted leave, he resigned, citing irreconcilable differences with the prime minister, particularly over her reluctance to give parliament a bigger say in the Brexit process.

“Stephen has his reasons, but that’s happened now and we need to look forward to the future,” Johnson says. “I voted to leave the EU and we’re committed to leaving the EU. Theresa May has said we’re going to leave and it now comes to negotiating the terms of that process.”

It would clearly take a seismic change to turn Sleaford off a long habit of Tory voting since its creation as a seat in 1997. But the lack of progress on leaving the EU six months after the vote is clearly causing some restlessness.

Voter Mary James.
Voter Mary James. Photograph: David Sillitoe/The Guardian

Mary James, 81, shopping in the marketplace in Sleaford, said she would vote Conservative because she “always has and always will”, but added that she was not entirely happy with May, and not keen on Phillips.

“I do like Ukip and I am pleased about Brexit, except everyone is trying to destroy it. May started off wonderful and could be another Maggie Thatcher, but she really has to go for it and quickly as well before people get despondent,” James said.

Robin Beever, 78, said he had always been a Conservative supporter, but he did know a few people who were turning to Ukip.

Voter Robin Beever.
Voter Robin Beever. Photograph: David Sillitoe/The Guardian

“I think there is a little frustration about Brexit and people would like to get on with it, but we all know we’re in negotiations and it does take time,” he said.

Victoria Ayling, a county councillor standing for Ukip, believes this argument will not wash with voters, and accuses her Tory opponent of not wanting a quick enough Brexit. At the same time, she dismisses the Labour candidate for voting remain and Jeremy Corbyn for “slagging off our armed forces and coming over like a complete traitor”.

Her election material is targeted solely at the 60% of the Sleaford and North Hykeham electorate who want to leave the EU, telling those who are “devastated, angry and disappointed” about the referendum result to join the Lib Dems, while the “positive, proud and patriotic” should come to Ukip – the “popular movement that putting Britain back on its feet”.

Ukip candidate Victoria Ayling.
Ukip candidate Victoria Ayling. Photograph: David Sillitoe/The Guardian

Ayling says: “It’s not just migration, it’s how much the EU is costing us. These latest figures of 650,000 or so migrants in July has gone down like a wet balloon. All this talk from Theresa May on Brexit means Brexit, all the delays, nothing’s changed.

“Every day we are not out of the EU, not out of the single market, how many hundreds of thousands more are coming here and how many more billions are we paying into this corrupt system?”

Ayling claims to be confident that she can run the Conservatives close, but no such thing happened in 2015, when she was beaten into third place in nearby Grimsby by Labour and the Tories, which she blamed on a smear campaign. She had previously run into trouble in the Mail on Sunday in 2013 over a video of her saying “Send the lot back”, which she later argued was about illegal immigration.

Screen grab of misspelt constituency behind Nigel Farage Ukip poster
Screen grab of misspelt constituency behind Nigel Farage Ukip poster Photograph: Sky News

Senior Ukip insiders have acknowledged that it is extremely unlikely that the party could repeat what the Lib Dems achieved in Richmond. Its efforts may also have been undermined by former leader Nigel Farage standing in front of a sign misspelling the name of the constituency as Sleaford and North Hykenham. However, Ukip still holds out hope of securing a second place and nudging Labour into third.

Back in 1997, Labour was only 5,000 votes off winning, with 34% of the vote, but its share has declined ever since, slumping to just 17% last year.

That decline puts the pressure on its candidate, Jim Clarke, a local refuse collector and long-time party supporter, who has just led a rally against the overnight closure of the local A&E.

Labour candidate Jim Clarke.
Labour candidate Jim Clarke. Photograph: David Sillitoe/The Guardian

Clarke says the NHS is the big concern of voters in the area, but is also keen to stress that he would like May to get on with leaving the EU. “The Tories are taking the seat for granted, and we are making in roads,” he says. “The A&E, NHS and waiting times for doctors, regeneration are all coming up on the doorstep.”

He adds: “Impatience about Brexit is a big issue in some people’s eyes as well. They want Theresa May to sort it out. I voted remain because my concern was local jobs and the economy. But politicians should respect how people have voted. [As an MP,] I would now vote for article 50 without a shadow of a doubt.”

While Labour embrace the journey out of the EU, some remainers in Sleaford and North Hykeham appear to be confused about which party to choose, potentially creating space for the Lib Dems to increase their share of the vote. One teacher, who did not want to give her name because of her job, said she was worried about public services and Brexit, so would probably go for the independent candidate, as she said she had in the past.

Meawhile, Marcus Hrubesch, owner of the Solo Bar in Sleaford’s market place, said he voted Ukip at the election as a protest, but actually wants to remain in the EU and now does not know who to vote for. “The Conservatives will win, obviously, but I’m very much undecided,” he says. “I voted to stay in, but I’m not bothered that we’re coming out. I voted Ukip as a protest vote. Theresa May – she’s just another puppet.”

Sleaford’s Brexit byelection: a people united by fear for the future


Rowena Mason Deputy political editor

The GuardianTramp

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