Winchester’s goodwill for the Tories runs short amid anger over fuel crisis

Voters in once true-blue Hampshire seat question handling of Brexit, petrol crisis and shortages

Last modified on Fri 1 Oct 2021 09.06 EDT

Helen Nott is angry, and her wrath is directed at one man: Boris Johnson.

“I am angry, I can control it, but I am really very angry,” she says as she walks to the shops on Winchester high street with her mother, a pensioner. “I’m actually really glad you stopped me to talk about it, otherwise I would just have been bending my mother’s ear about it all day.”

Nott, a teacher, is primarily angry about the fuel crisis, which has led her to leave her car at home all week and walk more than she would like. However, she says the tanker driver shortage is “just the latest in a long line of crises that [the government] expect us to bumble through”.

“All of this could have been avoided with a bit of strategic thinking,” she says. “But it feels like there’s no one in charge, no one that knows what’s going on. Boris thinks he’s in charge, and I think that’s the problem.”

Nott has a message for Johnson as he prepares for the Conservative party conference, which begins in Manchester next week. “I will not be voting for you, Boris. I have voted Tory in the past, and I may well do again in the future, but not for Boris’s government.”

All votes are important, but Nott’s may be especially so, as Winchester is set to become a key battleground at the next general election, scheduled for May 2024.

At the last national vote in December 2019, the Conservative candidate Steve Brine held the seat with a majority of 985 votes ahead of the Liberal Democrats making it one of the country’s closest marginals. Brine’s majority was cut from 9,999 at the 2017 election, and from almost 17,000 at the 2015 election.

The Lib Dems are hoping a surge of frustration with the government’s handling of Brexit, the pandemic and the fuel crisis could means Winchester follows the trend seen at June’s Chesham and Amersham by-election when the Lib Dems overturned a Tory majority of 16,223.

Nott says her decision not to vote Conservative “will be a protest vote against what has happened … I will definitely vote, but I will have to sit down with candidates and see what they stand for,” she says. “But I know this is Winchester, and that means the Tories or the Lib Dems really.”

Also out shopping in the Hampshire city is Nena Nwabueze, a 42-year-old IT worker. She says that to save her searching for petrol, her husband dropped her off in his electric car. “[The car] has really come into its own this week, and he’s proper smug about it,” she says.

“I don’t think you can blame anyone in particular for the fuel crisis, but they should have seen this coming down the line, and obviously Brexit hasn’t helped,” Nwabueze says. “No young people are planning to be a truck driver, and I think the government has been very short-sighted. The buck stops with them.

“You could say, we as a country voted for Brexit,” she adds. “But there were false and unrealistic promises, and now we are living the real reality.”

Nwabueze says she hasn’t decided which party she would vote for if an election was called tomorrow. “Weirdly enough I voted Tory last time. I don’t think I will next time.”

Asked why voting Conservative was weird, Nwabueze explains: “I’m quite middle, I don’t like far right or far left, I’m all about the centre. I voted Tory last time, as I didn’t like Corbyn. He’s far too left.”

Nwabueze says she likes Labour leader, Keir Starmer: “He hasn’t done much, but I think we have a better chance under him.

“Boris just doesn’t do it for me, he doesn’t inspire confidence. I know a lot of it is an act, but I want my prime minister to look decent. He needs to cut his hair, wear a suit properly, I wouldn’t want my son going around like that, let alone the PM.”

Susette Hall, 66, is also frustrated by the fuel crisis as she runs her grandchildren to and from school. “Of course they should have seen it coming, but I don’t think it is to do with Brexit,” she says. “Maybe it’s the government’s fault, but it is the media that has brought it to the forefront and got everyone going crazy filling up.

“I am a Tory, though, so don’t start me on that,” adds Hall, a retired agricultural estate worker. “I don’t think anyone could have done any better or any worse, any government would struggle with all this.”

In the old cattle market, Gary Daniel is manning the bar at the Winchester Club, a private members club which has recently expanded its membership from only signed-up members of the Conservative party.

“It’s totally bonkers,” Daniel, 57, says of the petrol crisis. “I’ve only got 40 miles of fuel left. They have no fuel over the road, and when they do get a delivery there’s a queue all the way down the street.”

He says the fuel crisis has been caused by the pandemic and Brexit, and the government could “possibly have done more to see it coming”. “With the pandemic, I think the government rose to it and did really well, but yes they could have done more about the fuel.”

A lifelong Conservative voter who has lived in Winchester since the 1980s, , Daniel says he will be voting blue at the next election, too.

A few streets away, Martin Tod is marshalling volunteers at the Lib Dem headquarters in a small business park as they prepare to open nominations this weekend for their next prospective parliamentary candidate.

Tod, a city and county councillor, puts the fuel crisis down to “Brexit, and its poor planning”, adding: “Like many remainers, my expectations are being fulfilled, but it’s worse than I thought. All the negative consequences [of Brexit] seem to be turning up but none of the positive.”

Tod, who stood (and lost) as his party’s candidate at the 2010 election, says there is still a lot of anger towards Brexit in the city and he hopes that will hopefully increase the Lib Dem vote at the next election. Just under 60% of the electorate in the seat voted Remain in the 2016 referendum.

“A lot of people are angry that our Tory MP voted for this Brexit deal, despite the people of Winchester clearly saying they were against Brexit,” he says. “And now we are seeing the problems. Steve Brine needs to be held to account.”

Tod says the “real problem” for the Conservatives is the “loss of their supposed reputation for competence”.

“Empty shelves, no petrols, and its impact on people’s job is putting the Tories under pressure, and they can’t talk their way out of what’s happening. People are seeing it in their lives.”

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