Through massed ranks of Midlanders, I can see Gregg Wallace’s head bobbing up and down. He’s making couscous and frying some sort of meat, cracking jokes about his MasterChef co-presenter’s drinking habit and flexing his biceps for the crowd. Wallace and I are in Worksop, where the North Nottinghamshire Food Festival is kicking off on a blustery Saturday.
Worksop is the largest town in Bassetlaw — the constituency that saw the greatest Labour-to-Conservative migration at the last general election. It’s the heart of Borisland. And now, exactly one year on from his ignominious resignation, many people here remain steadfastly loyal to their populist tribune. This was where the Boris majority was won: where miners, pensioners, Brexiteers and lifelong Labour voters united to stick it to their old party. Other than the brief blip of Malcolm MacDonald (son of the first Labour PM, Ramsay MacDonald) defecting to National Labour in 1929, Labour had held the town since 1929. Brendan Clarke-Smith is the MP who, in 2019, smashed that red record with a stonking 18.4% swing, the greatest, he later assures me, at any general election since the Second World War. (“I think it’s on Wikipedia.”)
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When Johnson took the seat, it heralded a new era of Tory politics. A new coalition, forged from the fires of Brexit, stretched from Hampshire to Hartlepool. Like Columbus, he seemed to have landed upon virgin territory ripe for the taking. Labour — cosmopolitan, effete and out of touch — looked sunk. But four years on, the shaggy conqueror is gone, and a string of by-elections threatens to chip away at his majority he built. In Selby, Uxbridge, Mid Bedfordshire, Somerton and now Chris Pincher’s seat of Tamworth, the prognosis is gloomy. So far, the bookies believe every single one will be lost. And Bassetlaw itself, the clearest expression of that much-heralded post-Brexit realignment, is now a harbinger of doom. In March, one poll suggested it, and all the other 44 Red Wall seats won from Labour, will be lost at next year’s general election. What went wrong?
“He’s still hugely popular,” Clarke-Smith tells me. “A lot of people voted for Boris. It wasn’t the only thing — it had been trending our way anyway — but those Brexit Party voters and so on came across, and he was a big part of that.” The big man, he says, has an “aura” about him that helped draw in converts. “You still get voters saying: ‘Oh, I voted for Boris…’”
When I meet the MP, he is wearing a checked suit and has a small ketchup stain at the corner of his mouth. A self-described “libertarian Thatcherite”, he was raised on a Nottingham council estate, trained as a teacher, and worked at a school in Romania before entering politics. He is also, on the day I visit, on the cover of the Worksop Guardian, delivering a sly grin alongside the headline: “MP slammed for ‘vile’ Twitter attack.” It is the outcome of Clarke-Smith’s engagement in the culture wars — he is at the fore of a group of working-class Tories keen to give as good as they get online. A member of the New Conservatives, a collective currently lobbying for tougher action on immigration, he is also part of the Common Sense Group, which has attacked “the woke agenda”.
He says this posture is what the Red Wall wants. “Apart from the obvious stuff about the economy and NHS, what would you guess the main issue is here?” he asks me. “The number one thing I get emailed about, more than Dominic Cummings, more than anything, is small boats. There is very little immigration here — but it’s the number one issue because they linked it to taking back control.”
If true, this harks back to the political energy Boris personified, and which this squad of Red Wall MPs were elected to enact. The highest-profile member of the Nottinghamshire Tory contingent is Lee Anderson, the spiky-haired former miner and ex-Labour councillor who now serves as deputy chairman of the Conservative Party. In a recent segment on his GB News show, which captured much of the banal absurdity of politics in 2023, Anderson fed Clarke-Smith baked beans in a blind taste test to prove that bargain hunting is the solution to the cost-of-living crisis. “Here comes the aeroplane,” he said as he raised the spoon, firmly back in single-dad mode.
It’s perhaps not the most traditionalist-Tory publicity stunt. But, “we’re not in London — there’s no liberal elite here”, his campaign manager assures me. In Bassetlaw now, “the bigger the house and the bigger the gravel driveway, the less chance there is they’ll vote for us”, Clarke-Smith boasts. They claim the realignment is still working.
Worse-off voters were crucial to the Tory success in 2019. In that election, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Labour lost nearly one in three low-income voters who had turned out to vote for them in 2017, while the Conservatives retained 90%. In the Red Wall now, however, the picture is shifting. The same March polling that foresees the Tories losing 45 seats in the North and Midlands shows the party behind in all social groups, from managers to unskilled manual labourers. That 19th-century notion of “working-class Toryism” has proven more elusive than first claimed.
And, away from the bustling high street, signs of discontent lurk. The cabbie who drove me from Retford, the handsome market town that makes up Bassetlaw’s other major population centre, tells me Boris was popular among his clientele in 2019. Now passengers young and old tell him they want a change of government. “My grandad was a well-known cab driver around Retford — he died during Covid. My gran couldn’t get out of her care home to attend the funeral.” It was, he adds dryly, “a bit crap”. He now works part time at Rampton Hospital, on a secure ward, where he helps transport imprisoned psychopaths. “There are cutbacks just like the rest of the NHS,” he says. “It’s much harder to transport patients now we have less staff.”
In Worksop itself, Wallace’s gleaming pate is plastered across town to advertise the food festival. I watch him deliver his own populist punchlines while cooking, laying into “clickbait” news and telling his audience not to trust headlines in the papers. It’s meant as a joke, but it captures the distrustful mood. Lindsay Martin, a Retford resident manning a friend’s market stall nearby, tells me she never fell for Johnson’s charm offensive. “Boris made a lot of false promises that were never delivered on. The country got worse under his leadership.” Asked about levelling-up, that chimera of social transformation, she merely laughs.
This region has always been sceptical of received opinion. The local council’s website grandly claims that “many regard Bassetlaw as the birthplace of the United States of America”. And, while that “many” is doing some heavy lifting, a sizeable chunk of the separatist-nonconformists who could no longer stand the Church of England did hail from the flat fields around here. At the local museum, a study resembling that of Plymouth Colony leader William Brewster is now preserved in aspic. And political dissidence, including to the benefit of the Right, is part of its history, too. During the miners’ strike, Nottinghamshire stuck out when the majority of its miners kept working and thus helped Margaret Thatcher’s government survive the winter of 1984.
Today, though, like much of the rest of the country, dissent has sublimated into a kind of jaded desolation. Others walking up and down the high street are less cynical. Janet, a pensioner in a purple windbreaker, tells me she voted Conservative for the first time in her life because of Boris. “It was his principles,” she says. “He got stuff done. Then he was brought down by other people.” What about the parties? Didn’t he break Covid rules? “It wasn’t his fault,” she tells me, without elaborating. “Rishi turned on him.” She will vote Tory again at the next election.
A middle-aged couple tell me that they, too, voted Conservative for the first time because of Johnson. “I liked Boris at the time,” says the wife. “The slur against him now smells a little of a smear campaign.” Her husband agrees: “I think I’d vote for the Tories again if Boris returned as leader.” “Cameron” will “sell us out” with Europe, he claims, before his wife hurriedly reminds him that the Labour leader is called Keir.
As the food festival winds down, the high street becomes deserted. I walk past Clarke-Smith’s high street office where one window has taken a hit but remains just about intact, bearing a spiralling network of cracks. Retford is similarly quiet. People aren’t interested in talking: a densely bearded man bringing down the shutters on his vape shop tells me he “doesn’t do politics”. I pass the empty headquarters of Jo White, Labour’s chosen candidate and the wife of John Mann, the constituency’s former MP. A sign proclaims that she supports “Traditional Values in a Modern Bassetlaw”. I do not quite understand what this means, but when I email her campaign to ask I do not receive a response.
Johnson, meanwhile, has got his trotters up in Oxfordshire. Throughout his career, the former PM cultivated a set of allies before discarding them and Clark-Smith now faces a potential suspension from Parliament after falling foul of the privileges committee — was it worth it to defend Johnson? “Part of me thinks I owe my position as a member of parliament to Boris,” he says. “Winning that election, and getting Brexit done and everything else. I thought he was doing a good job in difficult circumstances. It wasn’t just loyalty — I was doing what I thought was the right thing to do.”
His words are laced with unwitting irony. Four years ago, victory here seemed to herald the start of a new age. Levelling-up money might reverse economic decline; an end to Brexit psychodrama might let old wounds heal. Perhaps it was hope more than expectation when Bassetlaw, the Red Wall and Brendan Clarke-Smith all tied their fortunes to a New-York-born columnist with a history of disappointing those who trusted him. While some still keep the faith, that realignment seems to have delivered little change to their lives in return. And, beyond tribal loyalties, that was the promise of 2019, broken utterly when Boris resigned last year.
I asked Boris-loyalist Janet if the town had got any better since the election, and I received a simple answer: “No.”