Lord Ashcroft: “A craven opportunist”; “She’s a bit militant”; “I want it over and done with” – my final round of election focus groups

My final round of general election focus groups take us to three constituencies of the kind that will determine what happens next Thursday: Bishop Auckland, which the Conservatives are hoping to gain on the basis of a heavy Leave vote although it has never had a Tory MP; Warwick and Leamington, a middle England seat (literally and geographically) which Labour managed to capture in the 2017 upset; and Wimbledon, where the fate of re-instated Tory rebel Stephen Hammond is in the hands of the huge local Remain majority.

‘Or is it two billion?’

What has been going on in the campaign? “Fifty thousand more nurses, but it turns out 19,000 of them are employed already. That’s why nobody believes these people;” “A billion trees being planted by Corbyn. Or is it two billion?” “Corbyn wanting to put up taxes for the working man;” “Corbyn said he would cut train ticket prices, but that’s for people who commute in London, it’s nothing for us up here [in Co. Durham];” “Corbyn spending £83 billion and the Tories saying they’ll spend three. Three sounds believable, but eighty-three?” “The nuclear missiles. They’re going to borrow billions to renew it, but he’s not going to press the button. What’s the point?” “Free broadband. Great, but what about healthcare? At least you can look up what you’re dying of.”

Nobody had been greatly impressed by the political reaction to the London Bridge attacks. “The Tories were blaming Labour for the policy of releasing prisoners early, but they’ve done nothing to change it;” “Hadn’t Boris failed to grasp one of the nuances of the law? Which would be fairly typical of him;” “I don’t agree with Corbyn saying they shouldn’t do the full term. If you give someone 16 years, they should do 16 years. But I also think we need to have some sort of plan in place for what we’re going to do with these particular kind of people;” “Johnson said the right thing, that they should be locked up, but he made a mistake in blaming the previous government. That made him look like an arse.”

Despite the multitude of small campaign happenings, few could recall clarifying or mind-changing moments: “I get lots of contradictory messages. I see something that Corbyn’s released, and then I see something else like the Jewish scandal, and I think, ‘well, I was all for you up until I saw this;” “Jo Swinton – as soon as she said ‘we’re automatically going to stop Brexit’, that was her off the list. Then there was Corbyn with his £83 billion. Boris hasn’t really said a lot apart from ‘get Brexit done’.”

Redacted

Labour’s claim to have uncovered a secret Tory plan to privatise the NHS had continued to gain traction. Even if the evidence was unclear – as was exactly what they meant by privatisation – many felt the signs were ominous. “There is a redacted document, so you couldn’t actually see, but the allegation is that the plan is to sell or do some kind of commerce with the US;” “Corbyn said he had evidence, but then it went over to Boris Johnson and he said there was no way on God’s earth. Who do you believe?”

Do you really think the Conservatives would do something that would be so obviously unpopular? “I think they would, yeah;” “They privatised all the other things, like the railways;” “I don’t think we’d wake up one day and it was privatised. It would happen over time and we wouldn’t realise it was happening;” “They’ve already started, haven’t they. They’ve had all these secret meetings and there’s no smoke without fire.”

Chickenfeed

For many of our Conservative Remain voters in Wimbledon and Warwick and Leamington, the question was whether to use their vote to stop Brexit, or to stop Corbyn. For most of them, the latter was more important. For some this was because they had simply had enough: “I’m passionate about staying in Europe, but I’m almost thinking I don’t really care what happens as long as we get back to running the country;” “I was, I still am, a Remainer, but I want it over and done with now. It’s not to get the 52 per cent’s votes through, it’s to draw a line under Brexit and focus on other stuff.”

Few of these 2017 Tories were particularly enamoured of the Prime Minister: “He doesn’t feel trustworthy. He says one thing and then does a U-turn, and if he can’t come out with a straight answer he starts fiddling with his hair;” “He has no conviction. He’s just a craven opportunist whose only real desire was to be PM so he could say to himself he was PM. I don’t think he’s got any real desire to do public service;” “He was paid something like £300k to write for the Telegraph and he was calling it chickenfeed. He’s just completely not in touch with anyone.”

But to many of them, Jeremy Corbyn represented a threat of a different order: “How long have we got? He’s a dangerous Marxist;” “I just don’t like what he stands for. Everything I’ve worked hard for…;” “There’s been a lot about his sympathetic nature, historically, to terrorism. That doesn’t sit well with me. He’s not going to be tough enough, he’s going to pander to certain groups.” On Brexit, “they would fart around and there would be further delays and it would just cripple business and growth and development;” “I can’t afford to pay another five or ten grand a year in tax. That would really screw me over.”

The point was clearer still when they imagined Britain five years hence. Under Boris and the Conservatives, things would be “not massively different. I don’t think Brexit is going to be as apocalyptic as we’ve been made to believe;” “We’ll see price inflation on our food because we ship it in from Europe, but that might be offset by not raising taxes, which Corbyn would do;” “There will be growth, things will have stabilised. We’ll be looking back and saying ‘backstop? What’s that?’” But if they were surveying five years of Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn, they imagined “1978. The economy is terrible, inefficient, uncompetitive;” “House prices would crash;” “The rich would go. There would be no investment in the country;” “Do you remember when we had rubbish in the streets?” Would anything be better? “You’d probably get more money if you were on benefits.”

Bloody-minded

Perhaps surprisingly, some of our 2017 Labour Leave voters had a higher opinion of Boris Johnson than their Conservative counterparts: “He’s actually stood up to people. He won’t be bullied;” “He’s quite ruthless and bloody-minded. If he says he’s going to do it he’ll do it, regardless of the consequences, which is what I think you need;” “For me, the election is about getting the Tories in. I believe Boris will get the deal through. At the end of the day, we’ve had a referendum and the result was the result.” Some still had their doubts, though: “You’d like to think he’d get it done, but you just don’t know, do you? He said we’d come out on 31st October, it would definitely happen.”

Many of those leaning towards the Tories were helped along by their view of the Labour leader: “I think he’s a fantasist. He comes out with things that are just not plausible, that you would never believe;” “We’ve all voted Labour before, but can you imagine him and Diane Abbott running the country?” “He won’t even say what they’re going to campaign for. How can you vote for a party that won’t give you their view of what they’re going to do in the future?” “At first I did like him, but over time I think he’s the same as everybody else.”

Had anyone thought of the Brexit Party as a way of leaving the EU without having to vote Tory? “I did think about it at the beginning, but I’ve gone right off it now. They’re not going to get enough votes. It’s the Conservatives who will make it go through;” “Over the course of the last six or eight months the position has changed massively, so probably not;” “It’s almost wasting your vote. If we get a Tory landslide, at least Brexit will be got through.”

Any reservations? “The amount of austerity. People are using food banks more than ever. The NHS is under pressure, social services are under pressure, the public sector is failing completely, and something needs to be done about that;” “My reservation is that it’s going to be very focused on the south of the country. When they talk about the north it’s Liverpool, Manchester, two and a half or three hours to the south of us.”

Two penny-worth

Several of our 2017 Labour Remain voters in Wimbledon felt that the Liberal Democrats were best placed to take the seat from the Conservatives, though impression this seemed more to do with the character of the area than with any electoral data: “All these marginal seats, like Richmond, they all have yellow bits.”

Though they often said they would be prepared in principle to vote tactically as the best way of dislodging the Tories and paving the way for a second referendum, many clearly had hesitations about putting their cross in the Lib Dem box: “I don’t think they’ve really got a lot to say. I know the Brexit thing is big, but I don’t think you can just say ‘we’re not Brexiting’ because an awful lot of people in the country would be seriously peed off;” “They were very flaky in coalition;” “I don’t trust them. I think they will just crumble under the Conservatives;” “I like what they’ve got to say, but I don’t think there’s enough oomph behind them.”

What should Jo Swinson do if she found herself holding the balance of power in a hung parliament? “She should go into coalition with Labour;” “Stand up to Corbyn’s plans to spend stupid amounts of money;” “Maybe get McDonnell out and have a more moderating Chancellor.” And what would she actually do? “She will not win a fight with Corbyn. She hasn’t got the backbone for it;” “I don’t think she would go into coalition with the Conservatives again;” “I don’t know – every time I’ve heard her speak she’s pretty anti-Labour;” “I don’t trust them. They’ve done it before, they’ll do it again.”

For some, particularly on the Conservative side, the thought of a Lib Dem vote leading to another hung parliament helped clarify the question: “I’m tempted but I don’t want a hung parliament. It would be further uncertainty and mess;” “It would be worse than now, if that’s even possible. You’ll have this coalition that’s not going to agree, a constant battle in parliament about getting things through, it’s going to be a nightmare. And then you’d have Sturgeon putting her two penny-worth in;” “It doesn’t bear thinking about. Can you imagine the morale of the country if that happened?”

Most of our Tory Remainers were also unconvinced by the Lib Dems generally, and by their Brexit stance in particular: “I think she’s too pushy. She’s really passionate but she’s a bit militant for me. She’s so set on revoking Article 50 it feels like she’s got tunnel vision;” “As much as I want to remain, it would make a mockery of the whole democracy.” And has some pointed out, tactical voting works both ways: “If you’re voting Tory as a Remainer you are voting tactically, because you don’t want Corbyn in.”

And finally

When they make Election 2019: The Movie, as they surely will, who will play Boris? “That old French dude. Gerard Depardieu;” “They’d fluff up James Corden’s hair;” “Matt Lucas;” “Jonah Hill;” “Adam Sandler;” “Jack Black;” “Arnold Schwarzenegger in a blond wig.”

Jeremy Corbyn? “Jeremy Irons;” “John Pertwee;” “Leonard Rossiter;” “Catweazle;” “Ian McKellen;” “Wilfred Bramble;” “I’m thinking Hugh Grant, for some strange reason.”

What about the Lib Dem leader? “Emma Thompson;” “Julia Roberts;” “The Queen of Genovia in The Princess Diaries;” “Miranda Hart;” “Patricia Routledge. She’s a bit like Mrs. Bucket, isn’t she?”

And how about Nigel Farage? “Sacha Baron Cohen;” “Stephen Fry;” “Nigel Havers;” “Zippy from Rainbow;” “Himself, probably.”

If, when it was all over, Boris Johnson came to your house for dinner, what would he be like? “Good value, I reckon. Give him a couple of glasses of wine and he’d be the life and soul of the party;” “Polite but aggressive in his opinions. It would be The Boris Show;” “He’d knock something over and spill the wine everywhere;” “He’d offend your dog;” “He’d be good company for about twenty minutes, but I think you’d get fed up with him.” Would he bring anything? “His damson jam;” “Some nice champagne and flowers;” “I think he’d have forgotten to bring anything.” What else? “He’d stay the night on the sofa;” “Yeah, with your daughter.”

What about Jeremy Corbyn? “He’d probably take his shoes off at the door, which Boris wouldn’t.” What would he bring? “Tofu;” “A book, something meaningful;” “He wouldn’t bring anything, he’d take something. He’d go to your fridge and take a bottle of wine out.” What would he talk about? “His allotment;” “It wouldn’t be very light-hearted;” “Actually, if he didn’t talk about politics, I think he could be quite interesting. If you had something to say he would listen to you.”

Nigel Farage? “He’s one of the few politicians who don’t look down their nose. I don’t think he’s as bad a human being as people allege;” “He’d have lots of stories;” “He’d probably get horrendously drunk. It might be fun to watch.”

And Jo Swinson? “She wouldn’t. She’d say, ‘if you want to have dinner with me, you come here’.”

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