‘I’d probably give him a B’ — new Tory voter from Boris Johnson campaign video on the PM’s tumultuous first year
Boris Johnson surprising David Barnard during a Conservative party campaign video. Credit: The Conservative Party
David Barnard was shocked to meet Boris Johnson midway through a campaign video for the Conservative party. The highway maintenance worker from Bolton had just voted Tory for the first time. As Johnson marks one year in Downing Street, what has Barnard made of the PM's first twelve months in office?
David Barnard was having a cigarette outside a film studio in central London. The 33-year-old was about to be interviewed for a Conservative party video, the details of which had yet to be made clear. As four police motorcycles circled the building, he knew something was afoot. “That’s a bit strange,” he thought to himself.
Party members in the north west had been asked to suggest first time Tory voters who might want to feature in a promotional campaign. Barnard, though initially reluctant, was put forward by his friend Stuart, and had travelled down from Egerton in Bolton overnight.
Barnard, who works in highway maintenance, met the brief: he had switched from Labour to the Tories at the 2019 election. His was one of many crucial votes secured by the Conservatives in Labour’s so-called red wall (his constituency of Bolton North East turned blue).
Sitting down for the recording, he said: “When I voted Conservative for the first time it was something new, something I never thought I would do.”
Unbeknownst to Barnard, the prime minister was watching on. “I got there on Friday morning to find out it was just going to be me. Halfway through the interview, Boris just walked in,” he tells The House Live. They continued talking for around twenty minutes after filming, during which time Barnard asked for a selfie, showed him pictures of his dog, and invited the prime minister to his wedding.
The resulting campaign video, published in February, reinforced the Conservatives’ message of honouring people who “lent” their vote to the party in December. “Now we are the party that speaks for everyone,” the PM proudly boasted.
But while the Tories were riding high at the time, an almighty storm was already raging across the world. And though bruised and battered by the 2019 general election, Labour was soon to be under new leadership.
So as Johnson finishes his first year in office, what has Barnard made of the prime minister’s performance? And will the Conservatives be getting his vote next time around?
“Christ, it was a hell of a year for him to take over.”
Barnard is not wrong: in the past twelve months, Britain has left the European Union, tens of thousands of people have died in a pandemic that has also ravaged the UK economy, the Conservatives have won a general election, and protests have spread across the west at racial inequalities.
“All I can say is thank God it wasn’t Jeremy Corbyn in charge because we probably would have had Churchill’s statue floating in the Thames and the furlough scheme money would have been spent on trains and trees,” quips Barnard, who counts himself as a former admirer of the ex-Labour leader ("the more I listened to him, the more it felt like they were more preoccupied with activism and the appearance of a moral superiority").
Barnard comes from a Labour voting family. In the clip, he spoke of how he had grown up “with the impression that Labour was the party of the working man”. After the video came out, rumours swirled on Twitter that he was actually an actor named Tarquin from Clapham in south London (on Twitter, Barnard refers to himself as 'David B aka Tarquin', in homage to the false claims).
In 2016 Barnard voted for Brexit, setting in train his depature from Labour. “For me, it was more a case of feeling the Labour party were moving further and further away from me, and the Conservatives were filling that void, rather than me being massively enthusiastic about the Conservatives,” he says.
With that in mind, what has he made of Johnson’s efforts so far? He has been thrilled by the appointment of Rishi Sunak, whom he dubs “one of the best chancellors we’ve had in a long time”. “At the last financial crash, Labour was very keen to bailout the banks and this time it seems that Boris and Rishi are more concerned about bailing out the people with the furlough scheme, which is really positive,” he says.
He does have a few concerns, however. While he has been impressed with Britain’s stance on Hong Kong, he laments the “silence” from the UK Government on the treatment of the Uighurs in China. “I would prefer to see Boris and the British government set an example and make a stand against that,” he says.
For me, it was more a case of feeling the Labour party were moving further and further away from me, and the Conservatives were filling that void, rather than me being massively enthusiastic about the Conservatives
On the pandemic, he is also mildly critical. “Boris needs to be a lot clearer with his delivery, especially in the midst of a major health crisis. It is very important to be extremely precise with the message that you want to deliver,” he argues. “I don’t have a problem with the message that he is delivering, it’s normally just the way that he is doing it that I sometimes cringe at a little bit.”
As for appearance, Barnard says Johnson “has got to get his hair sorted” (he jokingly offers to lend the PM his flatcap or put him in touch with a few barbers in Bolton).
“He’s done well. He’s certainly under the microscope with everything that’s going on, but there are certainly some encouraging things to take from it,” he says, citing NHS spending and commitments to invest in the north.
But is there space for Keir Starmer to lure him back to Labour? Currently, it looks doubtful. “Labour at the moment have got a real problem where they’re just preoccupied with trying to appear morally superior, rather than providing sensible, pragmatic policies. They just seem far too preoccupied with making themselves look good rather than actually providing anything of substance,” he says.
While he praises Starmer for “purging” the frontbench of "Corbyn's people", notes his efforts in tackling anti-Semitism, and expresses admiration for the likes of Kate Green and Lisa Nandy, he feels the Labour leader is too concerned with appearances. "He jumped on the Black Lives Matter bandwagon so fast that he must have sprained an ankle," he says.
On the chances of the Conservatives hanging onto Labour’s red wall, he predicts: “It’s not going to be a case of Boris keeping it, it’s more a case of Labour losing it. It’s theirs to lose and they’ve done it through ignoring people on the Brexit vote and pushing for really woke policies and ideas.”
He adds: “It is these sorts of things that are pushing people away from Labour, rather than the Conservatives drawing them in.”
Barnard, who is considering running to become a councillor, says he is likely to vote Conservative at the next election. “There is certainly nothing that has put me off it,” he says. He is confident that Johnson’s commitment to investment in the north will also materialise.
If things were running smoothly, if he was operating on full steam, I think we would see the best of him
“He has realised that the important aspect to our economy is the workers. If your workers are paid then they’re able to put that back into the economy through spending, buying, going to restaurants, the cinema – whatever it is. That’s what keeps the economy moving. That is its bloodline,” he says.
“You’ve got to support that. You’ve got to have the focus of your support on the workers. That’s what has been encouraging for me, especially with Rishi Sunak, that is what he seems to have grabbed.”
Keeping hold of voters such as Barnard will be key for the Conservatives. The PM has touted infrastructure spending as the central tenet of his economic recovery plan and has vowed to spread growth evenly across the country. Meeting that pledge – and ensuring people are not left behind – will be vital to repeating the electoral success he saw in December 2019.
Asked to grade Johnson’s first year, Barnard says: “I’d probably say a B. He’s certainly had some things thrown at him that would be difficult for any leader. This is him coping in a crisis. If things were running smoothly, if he was operating on full steam, I think we would see the best of him.”
PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe