Outside the pub in the village green a banner hangs over the window: ‘Tonight we’re going to party like at 10 Downing Street’. With a photo of the front door of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s official residence.
Inside, Brian and Yvonne Stewart are having a pint of blond beer. They think that banner is funny and they are forgiving about Boris Johnson. Not that they don’t mind the news of recent weeks about lockdown rule violations. “Boris should show leadership and abide by the rules. But I think he’s doing quite well under tough conditions,” says Brian Stewart. “It was two difficult years with Brexit and the pandemic.”
Also read: Johnson further cornered by party during lockdown
This week will be another particularly difficult one for Prime Minister Johnson. High-ranking official Sue Gray may come out with her findings about the parties of officials and politicians in Whitehall. While the rest of England had to adhere to strict corona measures and could not visit friends or family, Johnson’s staff went for a drink. More than once; Gray is investigating at least nine occasions where rules have been broken. In particular, one specific party that the Prime Minister himself attended, in May 2020, has aroused a lot of anger. Especially when he clumsily defended himself last week, saying that “no one told me it was against the rules”.
Tonight we’re gonna party like at 10 Downing Street
Banner at pub in Hucknall
Support for Johnson within the Conservative Party is crumbling. The question is always whether there are enough letters from Conservative members of the House of Commons to give up confidence in him. How many parliamentarians have sent in such a letter is a closely guarded secret, until the threshold of 15 percent of the lower house members is reached. This is followed by a vote on his leadership. The appearance of Gray’s report—although it is unclear how outspoken it will be—is a logical new moment to write such a letter.
Angry emails and phone calls
What is clear is that much opposition is coming from young Tories who owe their seat to Johnson’s big win in 2019. They represent constituencies in the Midlands and the north of England where many normally loyal Labor voters have switched to the Conservatives. Now those lower house members feel the frustration and anger of their voters on their necks. Loads of angry emails and phone calls made them speak out against Johnson in recent weeks. According to some polls If there were elections now, the Conservatives would lose their seats again in most of those red wall districts.
But here in Hucknall, an old mining town in the East Midlands where Conservatives have ousted Labor in recent years, residents who voted Conservative in 2019 are still remarkably kind about Johnson. Although that mildness is often mixed with a portion of resignation about politics in general. Like Brian and Yvonne Stewart from the pub in the village square. They say that all politicians make promises that they cannot keep. The arrival of a fast train that would also open up the East Midlands? That is last cancelled. Leveling up, the promise to attract lagging areas with the rest of the country with investments? Brian Stewart: “Haven’t seen anything yet.”
For them, the main reason for voting Conservative in recent years was to finally settle Brexit. Immigration of foreigners had to stop, Stewart says. “That idea of Europeans and other foreigners that anyone could come here, no, that was wrong. Our society can only handle a limited number of inhabitants.” The fact that the UK now has a structural shortage of truck drivers and supermarkets regularly have empty shelves, yes, “Boris could have handled that a little better”.
Outside a pub down the road, Leslie Strickland is smoking a cigarette in her fur coat. In the 2019 election, Strickland voted conservative for the first time: “I thought it was going in the wrong direction.” But she hasn’t seen any improvement since then. She was also for Brexit and she still is. “Although I don’t see the positive effects yet, but it is still early days. That will probably come.”
The commotion about drinks in Downing Street waves them away. Well, we all broke the rules at one point or another. I’m not saying Boris was good, certainly not, but I do think he’s going to have a hard time. He also did a lot of good, the vaccinations for corona were arranged quickly.” And, she practically says, who should replace Johnson if he leaves? As far as she is concerned, at least not Labor leader Keir Starmer, lawyer and knighted. “Labour’s is a sir, unfortunately, so that doesn’t work for the working class.”
No more youth clubs
It’s market day in Hucknall. Elderly people stroll past stalls selling vegetables, second-hand books and Indian curries. They stand outside in line for the baker and butcher, neatly according to the corona rules. Emily Bradshaw is one of the few youngsters who walks by and she has nothing good to say about Johnson. “I think it’s terrible that everyone here dismisses their mistakes, like, well, he’s doing his best… No! While our health workers had to use garbage bags because they couldn’t get protective clothing, they were sipping cheese and wine in Downing Street. It’s terrible.”
Emily Bradshaw is one of the few young people who walks by and she has nothing good to say about Johnson. Photo Justin Griffiths-Williams
Bradshaw is from a small village further up the road. She studied in London and returned home when the pandemic broke out shortly after graduating. But all the facilities she had as a youngster are now gone. “The library bus, the after-school clubs, all gone. Do you think it is strange that there are now problems with juvenile delinquency here?” Today Hucknall is still quite lively because of the market. “But on normal weekdays it is extinct here.”
The hardest thing to understand, Bradshaw, is that residents here are now voting for the party that closed the coal mines under then Prime Minister Thatcher in the 1980s. “That work in the mines was really all we had. And now they vote for that party that also does so little for their residents. It’s so sad.”
The older population here is not so progressive and considers foreigners a problem
Emily Bradshaw Inwoner Midlands
Poverty is a serious problem in Hucknall and the rest of this Sherwood constituency. Residents here are poorer, less educated and unhealthier than average in the UK. In the meantime, the government is raising taxes, energy prices are rising and the 20 pounds (24 euros) per week extra benefit that the poorest residents received during the corona crisis has been discontinued. Bradshaw: “As sad as it is, food banks are the only form of community we have left. At Christmas we went to donate food and outside there were rows of families who couldn’t put decent food on the table and had no presents for their children.”
Why are many residents in Hucknall still so indulgent about Johnson? Bradshaw thinks the Conservatives owe their support mainly to their immigration stances and Brexit. “The older population here is not that progressive and finds foreigners a problem. While I think: if you want to come and live here, please, please go ahead, because we are not such a great country at the moment.”
Market day in Hucknall. The town in the East Midlands is in the hands of the Conservatives.
Foto’s Justin Griffiths-Williams
Market day in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire. The town is part of the constituency of Sherwood, a marginal seat currently held by the Conservatives.
? Justin Griffiths-Williams
Market in Hucknall, in the British East Midlands.
Foto’s Justin Griffiths-Williams
Mark Spencer in speech
Just last weekend, Sherwood’s deputy was discredited for potentially discriminatory remarks – Mark Spencer, he is Johnson’s chief whip, who oversees Tories faction discipline. According to He reportedly told the Sunday Times that when Nusrat Ghani resigned as minister, during a government reshuffle in 2020, he saw her “being Muslim” as a problem and that it “made colleagues feel uncomfortable”. Ghani has so far remained silent and has not filed a complaint as she was facing the prospect of social isolation and “destruction of her reputation and career”.
Also read: Boris Johnson’s supporters think it’s time for him to leave
Mark Spencer has vehemently denied the allegations, but these allegations come at a time when he and the other whips are already receiving a lot of criticism. They are said to have intimidated House of Commons who have publicly criticized Johnson and tried to blackmail, including threats about the budgets for their constituencies. Christian Wakeford, who joined Labor last week, said they had threatened to withdraw money from a school in his district if he did not vote with the government.
So in this torrent of negative news about the Tories and the way Johnson is running his government, Sue Gray’s report is waiting. It is unclear when exactly it will be released. Boris Johnson himself would have spoken with her last week and former adviser Dominic Cummings would also have been approached by her. Cummings has been at war with Johnson since leaving Downing Street. He claims that the prime minister was indeed warned about the drinks in May 2020, by himself and another official.
Sue Gray has according to British media meanwhile also found an email with a warning that that drink was not a good idea, that is potentially explosive for Johnson. And her investigation is said to have expanded into lockdown violations by his wife Carrie. In Hucknall, Leslie Strickland sees this kind of news as confirmation that the party just doesn’t like Johnson anymore. “They’re trying to get him out.”
Pub in Hucknall in de Britse East Midlands.
Foto Justin Griffiths-Williams
Newsletter NRC The Hague Mood
Follow politics The Hague closely and become an initiate in The Hague yourself
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on January 24, 2022 A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of January 24, 2022