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On the ground

Brexit: Tories rely on anti-Corbyn sentiment in affluent London seats like Johnson’s own

Uxbridge town centre, in the far-western fringes of Greater London.
Uxbridge town centre, in the far-western fringes of Greater London. Tom Wheeldon, France 24

A mainly centre-left city, London has long been difficult terrain for the Conservatives, and this time the British capital’s vote against Brexit has exacerbated the Tories’ challenges there. But amid disillusionment with the political choices on offer, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is an unpalatable alternative for many voters in prosperous London seats like Boris Johnson’s Uxbridge.

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The prime minister and Tory leader has a surprisingly small majority in his constituency of Uxbridge; it was halved in the previous elections. At the end of October, the Conservative Party headquarters warned that Johnson was at risk of losing his seat in the December 12 elections amid an energised Labour campaign for its young candidate, Ali Milani – although data analysed by pollsters YouGov predicts the Tories will hold the seat.

“There is a feeling that Boris has been parachuted in, whereas the previous MP John Randall was a local man,” said the cashier at an independent bookshop in Uxbridge – referring to the fact that Johnson first stood for the seat in 2015 while still London mayor despite little prior connection to the constituency. “I think it has got a bit less blue (the Tory colour) over time – it’s changed demographically, with a lot more young people coming in.”

‘A lighter take on the ridiculousness of everything’

But the most striking sentiment in Uxbridge was cynicism about politicians of all stripes.

“They’re all a bunch of wankers,” said one local resident, when asked about the electoral choices on offer. “I don’t want to hear about it!” shouted another, in response to a query about the December 12 vote.

Amid this disenchantment with politics, the centrepiece of the window display at another bookshop in Uxbridge was a collection of satirical works lampooning the powers that be – including the annual of “Private Eye” (a popular weekly that pokes fun at politicians of all varieties), the “Ladybird Story of Brexit” (a mock children’s story about the UK’s messy attempt to extract itself from the EU) and “Cold War Steve Presents … A Prat’s Progress” (a picture book presenting a character from popular soap opera “EastEnders” in surreal situations as he lurches across Boris Johnson’s Britain).

Satirical books on display in an Uxbridge bookshop, reflecting readers' desire for "escapism" amid Britain's tumultuous politics, according to a member of staff there.
Satirical books on display in an Uxbridge bookshop, reflecting readers' desire for "escapism" amid Britain's tumultuous politics, according to a member of staff there. Tom Wheeldon, France 24

The popularity of such satire reflects disillusionment with British politics, suggested a shop assistant at the bookstore: “It’s all selling incredibly well – especially since the election [campaign] started. I think it’s just there for a nice joke, a lighter take on the ridiculousness of everything; it’s definitely escapism.”  

Of course, when Boris Johnson first captured the British public’s attention as a journalist in the 1990s, he did so as a satirist of sorts – writing exaggerated, comic stories about the Brussels bureaucracy for the right-wing “Daily Telegraph” and making Wodehousian appearances on the TV comedy programme, “Have I Got News For You”.

For a while, this jocular persona made Johnson seem like a characterful alternative to the staid figures populating the Tory benches – in the same way that Corbyn’s passionate left-wing views came across to a lot of voters as a refreshing change from the PR-heavy style of the New Labour era after he won the party’s 2015 leadership elections.

‘Weak leaders’

However, now that neither leader is a fresh face in the public arena, many voters have tired of them both. “The leaders of the two main parties aren’t what I’m looking for: they both seem very weak leaders,” said Arjun, a young voter in Uxbridge.

“I see Boris and Trump as the same; they’re not like politicians,” he continued. “I know Trump’s a businessman, but I don’t know what Boris is – he’s not a politician, he’s just … there.”

Shoppers in Uxbridge town centre on a cold day in winter and election season.
Shoppers in Uxbridge town centre on a cold day in winter and election season. Tom Wheeldon, France 24

Arjun seemed just as unimpressed by Johnson’s rival: “I normally vote Labour but this time I’m hesitant because Jeremy Corbyn is just not someone I would look for as a leader – he’s just so wobbly.”

Others were even more critical of Corbyn and his socialist agenda. “It gives me goosebumps of fear when I think of what this country would end up like if he became prime minister; he’s the worst there could possibly be,” said Sue, who was running a donations stall for the local food bank.

She wasn’t the only one to express impassioned antipathy towards Jeremy Corbyn. Upon learning that his customer was a journalist reporting on the British elections, a cab driver responded with a cri de cœur: “I’ve been a Labour voter all my life – but I could never vote for that snake! He’s a Marxist; he said he’s friends with Hamas and Hezbollah.”

Indeed, Corbyn has struggled to shrug off suspicions of sympathy towards terrorist groups, ever since a recording surfaced of him addressing a meeting of the Stop the War Coalition in 2009 – at which he refers to Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends” and described the UK’s classification of Hamas as a terrorist organisation as a “big, big mistake”.

“I don’t know who I could vote for as Labour leader these days – maybe Keir Starmer,” said the cabbie, who lives in Wimbledon, one of many Tory/Labour marginal seats in London which – unlike Uxbridge – voted Remain in the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Battersea Power Station, an iconic symbol of London's former industrial prowess, in 2012.
Battersea Power Station, an iconic symbol of London's former industrial prowess, in 2012. Wikimedia Creative Commons

Regarded as one of Labour’s most pro-European figures, Starmer has featured prominently in the party’s campaign for London seats like Wimbledon – despite getting little airtime in the national campaign as Labour seeks to hold on to pro-Brexit seats in its northern heartlands.

Keeping the other candidate out in Battersea

In nearby Battersea, which voted Remain by a whopping 77 percent, a letter from Starmer urges voters to support Labour incumbent Marsha de Cordova, describing her as the “only effective voice against Boris Johnson’s damaging Brexit”. To drive home this message, Starmer refers to the Tories’ Kim Caddy as, “Boris Johnson’s Brexit candidate”.

While she promises to help implement Brexit despite having voted remain in 2016, Caddy’s campaign also centres on keeping the other party out of power as she seeks to overturn de Cordova’s thin majority of 2,416. “I think our competence on the economy and programme for government is in total contrast to the economic damage a Corbyn-led government will do,” she said.

Historically, the Conservatives tended to select pro-European MPs to contest London seats. But as he strives to avoid the Tory divisions over Europe that plagued so many of his predecessors, Johnson has ensured that all Conservative candidates have pledged to back his Brexit deal – limiting the scope for Tory hopefuls in the pro-Remain capital to distance themselves from his anti-EU stance.

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