The Christmas lights are twinkling and there is even an energetic fiddler playing a jaunty folk tune in the heart of Yeovil – but voters in this Somerset town have little festive cheer for Boris Johnson’s beleaguered government.
Alison Johnstone, 60, can no longer bring herself to vote Conservative. The last straw was the sight of scores of Conservative MPs voting against public health measures proposed by the government last week. “It was so wrong,” says Johnstone, a physiotherapist at Yeovil hospital. “I’m NHS, and it doesn’t make sense to not bring in all the extra precautions – and you can’t help thinking: is it because they wanted to keep partying?”
She is not sure who she would vote for now, but the newly invigorated Lib Dems are an option. “Hand on heart, I don’t think I could [vote Conservative]. Boris sees himself as another Churchill, and I don’t think he’s up to it,” she says, adjusting her face mask. “If we had someone like Paddy Ashdown standing again, I might very well vote for him.”
Yeovil, which was once the stronghold of Ashdown, who helped establish the Lib Dems as the third force in British politics, turned Conservative in 2015, electing Marcus Fysh. The area voted Brexit by almost 60% the following year, and the majority for Fysh has grown with every general election. But damaging scandals over Covid rule-busting parties and MPs with second jobs are pushing some Tory voters back towards the Lib Dems, who are viewed once more as serious challengers in many Conservative seats after the party’s spectacular byelection victory last week in North Shropshire.
The Lib Dems have caught the eye of Jane Dart, a Tory voter. She lives in the same village outside the town where Ashdown died in 2018. “I could be swayed. I’m one of those people who are ripe for change,” she says in a decorated pedestrianised shopping centre. “I would love to be a convinced Conservative, but I am beginning to wonder now about the viability of them and their leadership.”
Dart, 51, who teaches in a private school, also highlights the vote on the government’s plan B Covid rules, which required Labour support to pass. “How viable is [Boris Johnson] as a leader if he can’t control his own party? I’m never going to vote Labour but I could be persuaded [to vote for another party] if there was a viable alternative.”
Other traditional Conservative voters are more forthright. Lee Benneworth, 42, is praying for someone in the party to take over from Johnson. He mentions the prime minister’s faltering Peppa Pig speech to the CBI and the doomed attempts to change parliamentary lobbying rules to save Owen Paterson from suspension. “I have no confidence in [Johnson]. He is just a joker,” he says, on a shopping trip with his family. “He is a liar. He has a track record of telling lies.”
Victoria Benneworth, 35, cannot forgive the alleged lockdown Christmas parties in No 10 and elsewhere in government. “I know several people who were not able to see loved ones before they died in hospital,” she says. “I would definitely not vote Conservative. It would either be Labour or the Lib Dems.”
There is also revulsion at the rhetoric deployed by Fysh last week against the latest public health restrictions. “I wouldn’t vote for [Fysh] after he said vaccine passports were the same as Nazi Germany,” says one shopper, who usually votes Conservative. “He is vile.”
There are, however, pockets of support for the Tories. Annie Price, 48, a horse-riding coach, is more sympathetic. “Their job is pretty hard,” she says while browsing an estate agent’s window. “Whatever they do is wrong. Parties here and parties there … it doesn’t interest me. We’ve all been through so much. Does it really matter that they have bent rules, if they did?”
But they are outnumbered by angry, disillusioned Conservative voters, who do appear to mind. “I was very cautious going out. I missed seeing most of my family last Christmas. My dad worked in a care home, so I hardly got to see him,” says Karl Shortland, 29, while his children play on benches near the town’s poppy-covered war memorial. “When I found out [about the parties] I was fuming. Absolutely fuming.”
Some in the town are relieved that the political tide appears to be finally turning against the Tories. Gillian Hoskins, 60, is haunted by the footage of the PM’s former press secretary Allegra Stratton joking about a lockdown party.
“I had my mum in a home. I didn’t get to say all that I wanted [to her]. It was gutting that I couldn’t see her [when visits were banned] and then only see her for half an hour a week. I lost her this year,” she says, tears welling up in her eyes. “And that woman was laughing … it was hurtful.”
The byelection shock in North Shropshire has changed the perception of what is possible in Yeovil. Hoskins, who raised her family in the area, could imagine the town electing a Lib Dem again. “I think that things are going to change,” she says, as a soft dusk falls on the streets. “I think Boris most probably has had his day.”