Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss struggle to win over Red Wall and Blue Wall voters


After being sacked from cabinet in one of the most inexplicable political events of the past fortnight, Michael Gove’s July 20 remark that some of the government’s ‘essential functions’ had ceased to function could be interpreted as a blow taken to his former boss, the Prime Minister Minister.

Yet after spending the last week asking voters across the country for their views on the Conservative leadership race, I can tell you that he came as close to channeling the public mood as a politician has never done it.

In the focus groups held in the so-called red wall and blue wall areas, I heard story after story of frustration about how people thought the UK was not working – or, as the saying goes a participant, “everything is too expensive and arrives late”. Asked at the end of the groups for a word to describe Britain in 2022, most opted for “a mess”, followed closely by “struggling” and “chaotic”.

That’s the challenge Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak face in their race to No. 10. As Westminster has been devoured by debates over trans rights and the dark arts of vote-lending, the people to whom I spoke wanted to know what the next Prime Minister would do to help them through the winter – and they couldn’t understand why they weren’t hearing answers.

Even more damning, in focus groups conducted after televised leadership debates, people have told me they are now more concerned about these unanswered questions than they were before Boris Johnson announced his resignation earlier this month. If the leadership campaigns received the same feedback from voters as we did, it’s no wonder they chose to cancel the third debate, which was scheduled for Sky News on Tuesday.

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Nor were the voters we spoke to inherently anti-Conservative. On the contrary, the overwhelming majority recruited for our focus groups voted Conservative in 2019, often for the first time. Whereas in previous groups these audiences were willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt on inflation and post-Covid start-up issues, their patience has now run out.

They tell us now that support programs to help with the rising cost of living seem paltry. Additionally, if government intervention was found to be insufficient, government advice went down even further. In Monday’s group at Oldham, the suggestion that people should buy more own-label products was met with genuine contempt.

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Dealing with voters unhappy with inflation, backlogs and delays isn’t the only challenge Sunak and Truss face. Speaking to Conservative voters reveals just how much Johnson’s ghost looms over the race. For those who fell in love with the incumbent prime minister because of partygate, the question is: why did MPs take so long to get rid of him? For the sizable group who remain Johnson fans and attribute Brexit and the vaccine rollout to him, it’s: who else can do a better job?

On top of that, leadership candidates so far appear unwilling to embrace the most popular elements of Johnson’s agenda, such as ‘levelling’ and tackling climate change – speaking to voters from his constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip in 40C heat certainly focused minds on the latter. Candidates who appeal to voters who want a fresh start risk throwing out the election baby with the bathwater.

But it’s not all bad news for conservatives. While it’s true that none of the candidates are yet showing the magic that pollster Frank Luntz found in a focus group examining David Cameron in the 2005 Conservative leadership election, neither will Labor leader Keir Starmer. . He is still having trouble logging in.

Voters who abandoned Labor in the recent general election are far from convinced they can trust his party with their vote again. It is not yet the run-up to the Labor landslide of 1997, and there is a window for Sunak or Truss to win back those who opted for the Tories in 2019 but are wavering now.

To do this, they will need to draw up an appropriate plan to tackle the current ‘chaotic’ aspects of Britain and tackle the cost of living. They must also show that they “understood”.

Sunak will have to convince the public that he is not too rich to understand their struggles. He will have to return to the job-saving furlough Sunak who some voters have told us sometimes seems more Prime Minister than Prime Minister, rather than the man wearing £490 Prada shoes on a building site.

Truss impressed our focus groups with his tough stance in favor of Ukraine against Russia, but now must demonstrate how his promises of tax cuts will translate into money in people’s pockets. While she has begun to effectively turn her less polite style into a strength, the next month will force her to open up more to voters.

If they succeed in achieving these goals, either candidate could end up leading the Conservative Party to a historic modern fifth term. If they spend the next six weeks arguing among themselves, rather than making a speech to the public, they risk hitting another historic milestone in 2024: the fourth Conservative leadership race in eight years.

Luke Tryl is the British director of More in Common. So far in the Conservative leadership election it has concentrated two Red Wall seats (Oldham East and Rother Valley) and two Blue Wall seats (Altrincham, Uxbridge and South Ruislip).

[See also: Rishi Sunak will face two opponents in the Tory leadership contest: Liz Truss and Boris Johnson]


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