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Thu, 18 July 2024

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By Ben Guerin
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Liz Truss Is Campaigning Harder Than Ever In Her Once Safe Tory Seat

6 min read

The prospect of a Tory wipeout on 4 July means not even South West Norfolk is considered completely safe. Locals say Liz Truss, the constituency's MP of 14 years, is working harder than usual to avoid another political humiliation.

With its acres of farmland and historic market villages, South West Norfolk has always been a safe seat for the Conservatives — one which has been under the stewardship of Liz Truss since 2010.

As Truss climbed the political ladder from Tory backbencher to trade secretary, foreign secretary then prime minister, recent general elections have seen her spend less time campaigning in her constituency. But given the strength of Conservative feeling in this pocket of eastern England, the high-flying cabinet member, more so than the average MP, could afford to be elsewhere.

However, her 44 calamitous days as prime minister in late 2022 – and the reputational nosedive that ensued – has seen Truss hit the campaign trail differently this year.

Since the 4 July General Election was called, Truss has been knocking on thousands of doors. Her Facebook page is a hive of activity: photos inside village halls, with her team on street corners, and a snap of her with some geese. According to Labour candidate Terry Jermy, she's “done more work in South West Norfolk this time than the last three elections combined”.

He told PoliticsHome: “I've seen her all over the constituency the last few weeks, which has been really interesting.

“If she does win she would have earned it with a greater degree than in the past. But I do think there's a genuine chance that she won't.”

Current opinion polling makes terrible reading for Truss' successor, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. While Keir Starmer's Labour continues to enjoy large, double digit-leads over the Tories, Nigel Farage's Reform is feasting on what previously would have been Conservative support, while Ed Davey's Liberal Democrats appear to be enjoying a popularity surge in so-called 'blue wall' seats. Taken together, it spells electoral calamity.

With that in mind, Truss is a relative novelty, in that she is a Conservative candidate who is expected to be re-elected next month. She won nearly 70 per cent of the vote at the 2019 general election, with Labour far behind in second place with just over 18 per cent of local support — a majority that should be large enough to protect her from a polling day apocalypse.

However, in Thetford, a Labour enclave of the constituency, the prospect conjures feelings of despair.

“It’s highly embarrassing when people ask who our MP is,” says one shopkeeper. “It’s horrific to watch; pork, cheese, what next? When she’s a regular on Dead Ringers, how bad can it be?”

“Oh my god she’s horrific,” adds a passerby.

“People all think the same thing: that that was a quick in and out jobbie,” says the butcher of Truss’ short time as PM. “Everybody knows what she earns from it. That seems to come up quite a lot. A lot of people comment on that to me, because she'll get a wage now.”

Truss is entitled to security protection as a former prime minister, and campaigners and activists have also joined her on the campaign trail. But for the people of Thetford, her “posse”, “entourage” or “brethren” make the former prime minister appear haughty and unapproachable. As one shopkeeper puts it: “She ran past the shop at high speed, only stopping for photo opportunities”.

South West Norfolk (Alamy)

The picture is not much different in Downham Market, 25 miles northwards. While Truss has been seen out campaigning, one shopkeeper says she “only goes to the nice shops and cafes”. When she went to a local school, they claim she had “flinched” when a child approached her. Asked for a picture with some kids, the answer was “worse than no”.

A source from the Truss campaign said: “This is a bizarre claim and complete nonsense. We drop in to all manner of pubs, shops and eateries on the campaign trail. And I have never seen her refuse a photo. There have been loads of selfies taken, by adults and children alike.”

I cannot allow South West Norfolk to reward that level of failure in any way

In Downham Market, PoliticsHome meets James Bagge, who is running as an Independent against Truss. In gilet, cords and blue jumper, he is campaigning as South West Norfolk’s alternative Conservative.

“Liz Truss has failed this constituency badly in my view. She's failed the country and actually she fails her own party; she undermines it the whole time. And the reason why am I standing: I cannot allow South West Norfolk to reward that level of failure in any way – it would be a horror to me,” he says.

Bagge has been consistent in his opposition to Truss. 14 years ago he appeared on a platform objecting to her original nomination, insisting at the time: “She’s not local. She's clearly very ambitious, but she’ll be with us for two years and then she’ll be gone.”

But Truss remains, and Bagge finds himself banging the same old drum. “She has an assumption and an entitlement that is impossible to bear, frankly,” he says. “And people are crying out for accountability and decency in their politics here.”

“I'm a safe bet if you’ve voted Conservative all your life,” he adds. “I am not extreme in any sense of the word. I don't imagine that you could on politics fit a great deal in between me and Terry Jermy frankly.”

Bagge is hoping his brand of small c conservatism will appeal to Norfolk voters. But Truss – who has blamed the “deep state” for her failures as prime minister and recently shared a platform with former Trump strategist Steve Bannon – is playing more to the right.

Her campaign literature sets out six priority issues: culture wars, immigration and challenging net zero, as well as tax cutting, backing Norfolk’s farmers and getting a new hospital built.

Though Jermy hasn’t seen these leaflets, he has seen a questionnaire the Truss team put to constituents around six months ago, gathering views on her private member’s bill on single-sex spaces.

“It's a questionnaire widely described as culture war issues,” he says. “So it's solely about immigration, LGBT issues and climate change. It was really extreme right-wing type questions, very leading questions as well,” he says.

The survey also covered various issues around policing, the economy, education, transport and the NHS. A source on the Truss campaign rejected the claim that its questions were "right wing".

Jermy adds he felt convinced Truss would “do a deal with Reform and not stand”. However, Reform UK candidate Toby Mckenzie says there has been no talk of such a deal. “Nobody has approached me about any of this,” he said, but with two-and-a-half weeks of the campaign left, thought it possible Team Truss could still make contact.

While Truss declined to speak to PoliticsHome, she told Lynn News that reaction from constituents had been “pretty positive on the whole”. With Bagge, Jermy and Mckenzie nipping at her heels, her judgement stands to be corrected.

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