On the road with the Tories: York Central and Wakefield

On the road with the Tories: York Central and Wakefield

The Conservatives are targeting the previously safe Labour seats of York Central and Wakefield and this week, as part of my Northern tour, I caught up with both Tory candidates trying to unseat MPs in those seats.

In York Central I met Ed Young with his dedicated band of supporters out door-knocking in a leafy suburb. Ed, a former speechwriter to David Cameron, backed Remain, although he’s clear he doesn’t want another vote. Part of his patter on the doorsteps to those that voted Leave is the fact that all other candidates want another referendum (despite coming third in 2015, UKIP aren’t standing here).

He is personable and friendly, bouncing from doorstep to doorstep and never failing to ask wavering voters if they remember his grandfather’s old garage on Gillygate. He even told one lady she knew his mother as they both worked for York-based chocolate company Terry’s at the same time – although she wasn’t fully convinced.

The campaign seems well run, with volunteers descending on the seat from far and wide and a forever-buzzing WhatsApp group keeping everyone in the know. York voted 58% Remain so Ed Young’s previous support for the EU isn’t an issue with voters. One volunteer from the local party enthuses that “he has invigorated us”.

The Tory candidate over in Wakefield is Antony Calvert, a local businessman who did a stint working for Roger Helmer, Tory-turned-UKIP MEP, in the European Parliament. In contrast to Young, Calvert campaigned hard for Brexit, which is just as well in a constituency that voted 66% for Leave.

He says of his time working in the EU: “You can’t be a Remainer once you’ve been to Brussels, the waste is astonishing – every evening there’s a Champagne reception with the priciest bottles, and I can tell you none of them are bothered what the event is.” Almost everyone was for Leave in some Wakefield housing estates and the 90% turnout rate for some areas was unprecedented. “It’s really helped the Tory vote,” says Calvert as he recalls knocking on the door of a staunch Labour voter – a tattooed ex-miner – who said he would vote Tory just once because of Brexit.

Last month Calvert was caught up in a twitter storm after he was given an earful of abuse whilst buying train tickets at the  station. He had tweeted about the incident, saying: “Man recognises me at Wakefield Westgate. ‘These f***** Tories, always looking to trample on t’working class, like me.’ Man walks into Costa” – which was interpreted by some that Calvert thought working class people shouldn’t drink coffee. “It was nothing like that,” he told me over a cup of tea. “I just got got verbally attacked and then tweeted about it. Then I was getting trolled by Momentum types – it got really nasty.”

The sitting Labour MP for Wakefield, Mary Creagh, (clearly held in disdain by Calvert) called it a “sneering tweet”.  When I said I was planning to meet her later that day, he wished me luck. “You won’t get hold of her if you’re asking about Brexit.”  Despite two-thirds of her constituents voting to Leave, Creagh backed Remain and even voted against triggering Article 50, declaring her action “in the best interests of people in Wakefield”.  After several calls and a robust discussion with an aide through the intercom of her office, I was still not any closer to making contact. They didn’t even pretend she was out. “I don’t think it’s going to happen,” said a crackly voice.

Creagh’s majority is fairly slim. The turnout at the last election was 42,973 but just 2,613 votes separated Creagh from Calvert – who also contested the seat here in 2015. There is also another factor in the mix: UKIP have councillors here but have chosen to stand down and endorse Calvert as their Brexit candidate for Wakefield. The Greens have done the same for Labour but their 1,069 votes are negligible compared to the 7,862 votes for UKIP at the last election. The Tories have a real chance here.

Back in York Central, the sitting MP is Labour’s Rachael Maskell. Like Creagh, she too backed Remain, voted against Article 50 and even resigned her Shadow Cabinet post in order to defy her party whip on the issue. She has a majority of 6,716 in York over the Conservatives but since most York voters backed Remain too, she doesn’t feel the need to hide it. I asked her twice if she could think of any benefits whatsoever to leaving the European Union – she didn’t name a single one.

In contrast, at a hustings at the University, Ed Young, the Conservative candidate, was full of enthusiasm about Brexit and how it could benefit the city. Young voted Remain but has adapted quickly to the post-Brexit landscape. Currently working for Tesco’s PR department, Ed has wasted no time selling his new political product.

This really is the Brexit election, and many people I’ve spoken to on the streets are switching their votes to the Tories because they voted Leave. This doesn’t seem to just be anecdotal, with a recent Sky News poll suggesting 72% of Leavers will vote Conservative.

On the doorsteps the Conservative campaigns have noticed a slight hardening of the Labour vote as the Tory poll ratings have slipped – but not to the extent suggested by the polling. From what I’ve seen, the Tories seem finally back in touch with both the grassroots and working class communities. In the immortal, if slightly misquoted, words of Jeremy Corbyn, the Tories really have “wrapped the Conservative Party in the Union Jack”.