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Grassroots Tories Say Next PM Must Win Back Voters' "Trust" After Johnson Scandals

5 min read

The next prime minister must deliver a comprehensive plan to help people with rising energy prices “straight off the bat” if they are to have any hope of helping the Conservative Party recover their poll ratings after almost 12 months of scandals, grassroots members have warned.

The next Prime Minister has the chance to “control, alt, delete” and start afresh from the bad headlines of the last administration if a financial package is delivered quickly, but “if it doesn’t then it isn’t going to recover in the polls," local Tories say.

The approval ratings of Boris Johnson’s government have continued to decline over the summer during the Conservative leadership election – as has the perception of the Conservative Party.

Both Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak have hinted that more help will be coming for households to help tackle rising prices, but frontrunner Truss has been under pressure to give more details about the plans she has in mind.

Ryan Stephenson, a Conservative councillor in Leeds, told PoliticsHome that earlier this year “the voices you heard most were those who were saying [Johnson] has got to go,” following the slew of bad news, but attention has shifted. 

“We were knocking on doors speaking to voters and we would hear people saying to us they are Conservatives but they won’t be voting for us whilst Boris is the leader.” 

While he now detects a reversal of that to some extent, with “people who are coming out and didn’t want Boris to go,” he thinks that the focus is now squarely on the cost of living. 

“People have been prepared to wait to hear what the government is going to do, but that needs to be sooner rather than later and that’s definitely the message we’ve been getting on the doorstep. 

“There is a willingness that they want the Conservative government now to hit the ground running next week, and I think they’ll be fairly unforgiving if the next Prime Minister doesn’t do so.” 

Stephenson added: “It’s the only issue in town right now."

“Everybody is going to be cutting back as the bills hit this winter, it’s going to have a big impact," he added.

“So people want to know where it’s feasible that the government is doing all it can to help them.

“Right now I get the sense that people have been forgiving in the sense they know that next week there’s a ‘control, alt, delete’ and a new government comes in and starts with a fresh plan. 

“But the government has to do that because if it doesn’t then it isn’t going to recover in the polls when we get through to a general election.

“We’re going to have to do something.” 

George Holt, director of campaigns and elections at the Young Conservative Network, believes that the public have been “rapidly losing faith in the system” of Westminster politics for years, but similarly, thinks that “fast results” on energy would “go somewhere” to helping their polling fortunes. 

“I look forward to getting a new leader, and what they need to do is pay attention to the grassroots,” Holt told PoliticsHome.

“They need to go on a listening exercise, essentially. They need to listen to us and what we’ve been hearing on the doorstep and across the country for the last year and take that to fuel their material at the next election.” 

What he is hearing on the doorstep, he added, is “apathy”.

“People are confused, people are frustrated. People are losing faith in the system.” 

“There are a lot of people who voted for us in 2019 expecting change," Holt said.

“When Covid hit, it was all delayed, so people are confused. They voted for change in 2019 but that hasn’t happened yet."

“If a new Prime Minister comes in and can win people’s trust with a plan that details fast results for energy, that would go somewhere,” he added. 

The number of people labelling the Tories as ‘untrustworthy’ as per YouGov figures increased sharply (from 56 per cent to 64 per cent) between late October and late December last year, during which period, the first partygate stories had hit the headlines. 

The numbers have remained around the same level ever since, with 64 per cent of people still labelling the party as untrustworthy at the end of July, as per the latest available data. 

In July, a YouGov poll of Conservative party members suggested that honesty and integrity were among the personality traits they were most looking for in their new leader. Around one-third of members questioned said that ideas of ‘conventional conservatism’ were important to them, such as reducing tax and spend, and economic prosperity. 

One Conservative councillor in the West Midlands thinks that such a return to conservative principles is key to restoring people’s faith in a “good government”. 

Meirion Jenkins, a councillor on Birmingham City Council, said he believes “there are a number of things that people did that were really foolish,” and went on to describe partygate as “utterly, utterly intolerable” and  “very poor judgement and quite wrong". 

“Scandals come and go and individuals make silly choices and make mistakes,” Jenkins said, reflecting on the news stories of the last year. 

“But none of that, I think, would sort of lead you to conclude that an otherwise good government was a bad government."

“But the problem that we've had with this Conservative government is that it hasn't been a Conservative government,” he added.

“All in all, had it been a solid Conservative government, taking forward conservative principles of small government, low tax, less intervention in people's lives. I could have lived with everything else.

“But we didn't even have those first principles, right.”

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