“We love tractors,” says an old man by Tiverton market, sunning himself on a bench. He gives a filthy laugh and I hear pride in it: he sounds like Sid James. Tractors are why I am here, at least tangentially. In April, the Tory MP Neil Parish Googled a Dominator Tractor in the House of Commons and found himself watching BDSM porn in view of colleagues. He resigned to become a crucible for a by-election and a metaphor for decline. Ennui is the presiding atmosphere in Tiverton and Honiton: boredom. It’s another referendum on the Prime Minister’s leadership. They are getting repetitive.
“There’s nothing happening here,” the man says, when he stops laughing. “They’re just letting this town run down to the ground. They aren’t doing anything. You walk down through there” — and he points at a road — “they were going to take a building down, make more room for the market. They’ve scrapped that now. Why? Nobody knows.”
This is dairy country with undulating, sun-wilted hills from Exmoor to Lyme Bay. The towns are golden and ancient: less sleepy than necrotic. Londoners buy second homes and treat the landscape, which looks like an advert for butter, as a garden while common issues — low pay, lack of housing, infrastructure, local services — have been ignored. Still, it was safe for Tories: farmers are conservative. Parish’s majority in 2019 was 24,239 votes: 60.2% of the vote. Labour came second in 2019 and 2017 but the Liberal Democrats, the professional opposition, hope to repeat their successes in Chesham and Amersham and North Shropshire with their candidate Richard Foord, a former major in the army.
Three hundred activists a day come from out of the constituency to help: angry Tories don’t vote Labour. If it goes Liberal Democrat, it means Johnson is still in danger. If it doesn’t — and even Liberal Democrats are unsure — it means Partygate is forgotten, and he has hope: to continue his personal redemption through destruction.
“I would like,” the man continues, “to think the Liberal Democrats will get it. Make a completely new start. Because the Conservatives — what have they done?” But this is a by-election: just one less brick in the wall. It will change nothing. Does he know that? He answers his own question, enunciating carefully: “Very, very little. Did he [Neil Parish] make a mistake? Would you walk into the Houses of Parliament and produce a phone and start looking at porn?”
“Is he the only one who’s doing it?” asks his friend, and they guffaw for a while. In east Devon you must be patient. They think in decades. To them, Parish is a fool, not a fiend. There is not the same anger towards him as there was towards Owen Paterson in North Shropshire. Those who liked him still like him. (One man says he loves him.) Those who hate him hated him anyway.
At the edge of Tiverton, where it segues from golden town to sprawl, I find the Community Arts Theatre. Public hustings are almost unknown nowadays because they are unpredictable but, since it is organised by the Fund Our Tivvy High campaign — the school needs to be rebuilt — the main candidates agreed to it.
I arrive early and watch the For Britain candidate, a ruddy, pinched boy called Frankie Rufolo, who carries aggrievement like a cartoon cloud over his head, attempt to infiltrate the hustings. He was not invited. “You’re a racist,” a youngish man tells him. “I’m an anti-racist,” Rufolo pleads back. (For Britain is endorsed by Tommy Robinson.) A security guard approaches to remove Rufolo. I ask Rufolo if he is local. “I have relatives in Devon,” he says sulkily. “No, you don’t,” says the security guard (though, in fact, he does), and leads him away, head hanging like a daffodil.
I listen to the Labour candidate Liz Pole, a genial woman essentially trying to climb a mountain in slippers, giving a TV interview: “The Conservative vote has collapsed, even people who are voting Conservative are doing so through gritted teeth, a lot of people are staying home or are switching…” Her press officer, who is presumably decorative, won’t brief me on or off the record but I think it is less tactics — an informal non-aggression pact with the Liberal Democrats is a persistent rumour — than laziness. Later, when I call out to her, she places a finger in the air and walks to the carpark with it.
As the audience muster, a group called LIFT (Local Independents for Tiverton) unfurl a banner that says: The Party’s Over, Prime Minister. Post confidence vote, it is an ancient slogan. It could be by Cicero. “The Conservatives have taken us for granted,” says a LIFT supporter. “The only time we were on the news is when our MP was caught looking at pornography in the House of Commons.” He talks about local food poverty, which is “remarkable” (donations have flat-lined and the church that stores them is empty), the dangerous condition of the school and lack of representation, homes for locals and well-paid jobs. There used to be a clutch of thriving factories around Tiverton, he says. Now they are shuttered or small.
He is by far the angriest man I meet in Devon. This is not raging North Shropshire, where former Conservatives would denounce Johnson on street-corners, or Chesham and Amersham, where the atmosphere was a kind of gleeful transgression in sunlight. It feels sadder than that: splintered, tetchy, defeated, as if Johnson’s corruption is settling over everything like dust, leaving people bewildered and exhausted. Many people tell me they won’t vote, and never have: “I’d rather sit in my garden and have a cold beer.” “They’re all the same”. One Labour woman voted Liberal Democrat tactically in 2010, and never will again; an old betrayal haunts her and so she will help Johnson by voting Labour. A youngish man is one of the few Tory splitters I find: “I was a paid-up member of the Conservative Party and there’s no way I can vote for the Tories in the state they are in. They’ve lurched to the Right.”
Some people are gently awed that politics has fallen on them. A man in a checked blue shirt with exquisite RP accent, who is here to find out if the Conservative candidate is pro field sports, says: “I’m not going to tell you who I normally vote for, but I am much to my own surprise” — and he does look very surprised — “a floating voter.” If he is anything other than a Conservative now leaning Liberal Democrat, he needs a better disguise.
Inside, it is packed with political obsessives who know how they will vote: anti-Tory. The Tory candidate Helen Hurford, a former teacher who now owns a beauty salon — Corbynistas smirk at this because they are snobs — sits with Gill Westcott, the Green Party candidate, who is the sort of woman who sags under her obvious intellect. Liz Pole sits with Richard Foord. He looks open-faced but exhausted, as if a burden is upon him. That’s the disease of by-elections: the idea that they matter for anyone beyond the lobby’s Kremlinologists. They are only runes.
I have covered many by-elections and Hurford is the worst candidate I have found. Initially she says she wants to share “all my ideas and my aspirations for the Tiverton and Honiton”. The definite article is singular to her; she considers everything from her own perspective; her speech is filled with exclamation marks; its content is banality meets rage. “I know what it’s like to raise a family and be brought up in this area,” she says. “It’s beautiful! I’ve had lots of ministers coming down to support me and they’re saying, ‘isn’t it gorgeous?’ and I say, ‘Yeah it is, why would you want to live anywhere else?’”
A woman in a straw hat rises to ask: “In light of the resignation of two ethics advisers in less than two years, what is your personal view on the moral character of Boris Johnson?” “It’s hard to know where to start, just the lies, the repeated lies,” says Liz Pole, looking phlegmatic because the alternative is screaming: “The brass neck of the man.”
“The first part of that question, I believe, was about the resignation of the ethics advisers,” says Hurford. “It’s very Westmistery. That’s the expression I use. I’m not in Westminster but my understanding is that it was a commercially sensitive issue.” There are heckles at this, but she moves through them like a tank: “That’s what I’ve been told, thank you very much!” The chair presses her: do you have any concerns about his character? “I have no concerns that his pledges are honest”. Foord says: “To lose one ethics advisor could be regarded as misfortune, but to lose two ethics advisers can only be carelessness.”
Hurford is pressed on the cost of living (“I’m feeling it too!”) the environment (“I don’t have the answer!”) and the policy of sending refugees to Rwanda: when the refugees get there — “and it will happen” — they should “be treated kindly and fairly!” She summons Zelenskyy in her support and, at the end, when she is asked who her favourite thinker is, she names her grandfather. (Westcott names Gandhi, Pole Dickens and Foord W. B. Yeats and Paddy Ashdown). “You know, I hated school,” Hurford says conversationally, and it sounds like the truest thing she has said. “Slightly ironic that I became a head teacher.”
I think of May Welland from The Age of Innocence: Hurford has that hard, unyielding brightness. It shines. It lets nothing in. She is a typically Johnsonian Tory; evasive, anti-intellectual and self-obsessed; quick to anger when threatened, slow to change her mind, if she ever does. Every time she speaks, I feel materially closer to autocracy. At the end she says: “This is a fantastic opportunity for a girl that was born and raised and absolutely adores this constituency Tiverton and Honiton”. I wonder if she will burst into song. “Everything that I do will be for the benefit of Tiverton and Honiton because I am Tiverton and Honiton.”
Later I meet Richard Foord. He is not as interesting as Hurford, not being a mad kind of nadir, but he has spoken to hundreds of former Conservatives and, like Pole, he believes the Conservative vote is ebbing. “There are a lot of long-term traditional Conservatives who don’t regard Boris Johnson as a Conservative,” he says. “The most cited reason is that they regard him as lacking in integrity and honesty and for some people these traits are part of their own identity as Conservatives. Some Conservatives do put that above everything else.” There are Johnson loyalists, he adds, “who will stick with him, but I think they are outnumbered by the number of Conservatives who feel they should be better led.”
The next day I find the Liberal Democrat office on Honiton High Street. It is swagged with Union Flags. There are no chairs inside to discourage sitting down, which is not a sign of confidence. An elderly man returns from canvassing in Axminister. He moans that people aren’t budging from the Conservatives — “We are Conservatives,” he reports them saying to him — takes another bundle of leaflets, and leaves disconsolate.
The Honiton Conservative Association, a few doors down, is shuttered. There is a rumour, which I cannot confirm because it is shuttered, that the officers of the Honiton Conservative Association are voting Liberal Democrat. There is a Liberal Democrat sign on the Honiton Conservative Association, but I cannot say who put it there. I think it is a joke.
This by-election is the most depressing I have covered. It feels sunken and shameful, which is not surprising when you consider its origins: a by-election not for constituents, who feel ignored no matter their stripe, but for other people. The media is here, mugging locals and holding up queues in the butchers. They gawp at the nerve of it: as if we are more interested in a prime minister’s fate than a constituency’s. They wonder why they were not always so interesting to us; why we never came here before; if we are irreparably trivial.
I meet aghast and defensive Tories, thwarted Leftists, the undecideds who will choose whether Hurford gets to parliament or not and the eternal, maddening non-voters. But I can’t find the purity of the anger I heard in North Shropshire like a bell. “It’s quite amazing,” a Left-leaning bookseller tells me, his fingers stroking their spines, “how much people will tolerate before they rouse themselves.” I can’t escape the sense that the Tiverton and Honiton is just another distraction: another tiny chapter in the incremental narrative of Boris Johnson’s will to power. I wonder if he is more afraid of boredom or hatred. And we are back to him, again.