“It’s become a national referendum that’s been foisted on Tiverton,” says coffee shop patron Benjamin Barton.
“All I want is a bus service, I would be really easily swayed if somebody said ‘we’ll put in a better bus service’.”
And so goes the groan of discontent in the Devon town of Tiverton, which is daily awash with journalists trying to speak to locals about partygate, tractorgate and now Carriegate.
The town’s former MP Neil Parish – who I’m assured by many locals is “a good bloke” and is very popular – was forced to resign for watching porn multiple times in the House of Commons. Parish says it was an honest mistake caused by an innocuous attempt to search for Dominator tractors online. You be the judge.
Thursday’s by-election in Tiverton and Honiton is being seen in Westminster as a key litmus test for Boris Johnson’s premiership. A Tory defeat in Thursday’s by-election, and a defeat in the Wakefield by-election on the same day, will likely fuel new backroom plots to oust the Prime Minister.
However, some I spoke to in Tiverton were either apathetic or simply fed up that the town’s problems were being overlooked again.
The constituency’s farms – which lay just beyond the green rolling hills surrounding Tiverton – are being squeezed by inflation, the town’s public transport options are dire and its ambulance waiting times are among the worst in the country.
“We’re in the corner of the country that doesn’t really exist,” restaurant employee Mark Webber says.
“We’ve been waiting for over 20 years for a new school, a new high school. That got cancelled by the Conservatives in 2010.”
Webber still voted for the Tories in 2019, but he will vote for the Liberal Democrats on Thursday.
The Lib Dems’ own internal polling says their candidate Richard Foord is neck-and-neck with Tory hopeful Helen Hurford, with both on around 45 per cent of the vote. Foord needs to produce one of the largest by-election swings in UK history, however Lib Dem officials are increasingly confident they are on course to win.
Foord says many in the constituency already felt they’d been taken for granted by the Tories and that a series of sleaze scandals, combined with partygate, tipped them over the edge.
“It’s not just partygate, but what that represents. It’s dishonesty, lying to parliament and that they can’t trust this Prime Minister,” he says
“If the Conservatives have their majority reduced or overturned in Tiverton and Honiton it would be a very clear message to the Prime Minister that he needs to go.”
The sentiment rings strong for usual Tory voter Stewart Alford, who I find in the delightfully rustic White Ball Inn on the banks of the River Exe.
“We need him gone. He’s rubbish. He lies, he lies and there’s always somebody else and he gets away with it,” he says.
Local cab driver Carl Schotler says he has “to turn the TV off every time I see Boris now”.
“It’s a f***ing mess the whole lot,” he says.
“I’m completely disillusioned with the Conservatives.”
These sentiments in a rural Tory constituency are tangible examples of what polling has been saying for more than six months – the Prime Minister is diabolically unpopular. What must be particularly concerning for Number 10 is that this unpopularity spans to places that voted to leave the EU, like Tiverton.
Helen Hurford, a former head teacher and current beauty salon owner, is trying to assure voters that they are better off sticking with the party of government
She told local media recently that only she can deliver “improvement on our roads, money towards our schools and getting the best deal for our farmers”, while adding at a hustings event that she thought everyone wanted to move on from partygate.
Unfortunately for Hurford, the people of her constituency may only be able to move on and achieve catharsis by giving her party a serious kicking at the ballot box.