As they digested the news that the next two years will bring the sharpest fall in living standards since the 1950s, the residents of Newcastle-under-Lyme said that just getting through this winter will be hard enough.
The West Midlands town flipped from Labour to Conservative at the last election, but there was little evidence on Thursday of continuing support for the government, or patience for the hardships that are looming.
“The town is dying on its arse. Shops are shutting and people aren’t coming out to meet up for a coffee — they are too scared to treat themselves,” said Lee Knott, manager at the Plant and Wilton butchers.
“It’s tight enough as it is without taxes going up,” he added, noting that his family was already cutting back on anything fun, like taking his children out, in order to afford rising food and energy costs.
While he voted Conservative for the first time in 2019, he said Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, had no mandate to handle the current economic crisis and should be calling a general election. When a vote does come, he said, he would vote for whichever party “does the best for me and my family”.
Bernadette Speers, a carer, said an eighty-year-old neighbour was restricting herself to one cup of tea a day because she didn’t want to switch the kettle on. “I blame the government. Who else is there to blame?” she said.
But Nigel Griffin, who runs the Shaws fish and chip shop on the high street, had more sympathy for the predicament the government is facing.
“It’s extremely difficult to please everyone and fund areas that desperately need it like the NHS and the welfare state,” he said, adding that the cost of the Covid pandemic would need to be paid for. He said Sunak had “his head screwed on” and might be able to balance the books.
Many Newcastle residents like Knott, the butcher, voted Conservative at the last election because of a dislike for the then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and a belief that Boris Johnson, the former prime minister, would both “get Brexit done” and invest in the area as part of his “levelling-up” agenda.
But having already suffered steep price rises over the past year, residents are facing not only higher central government taxes but also a potential 4.99 per cent rise in council tax, if the Conservative-led local authority chooses to take advantage of a change introduced by the chancellor to allow it to fund any budget shortfall.
As a result, Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, has his sights on the constituency, which he has visited twice in the past 12 months.
But Aaron Bell, one of dozens of Conservative MPs with slender majorities in the so-called “Red Wall” seats that switched from Labour control, felt the Autumn Statement had given him a chance at defending his job, noting that the government was raising both welfare benefits and pensions in line with inflation.
“Within the context of [a] very difficult fiscal situation I think the chancellor has delivered for places like Newcastle by looking after the people who have the least and making sure the pain falls more on the people who can afford it,” he said.
He was also hopeful that £23mn of investment predating the Budget through the Towns Fund and a further £11mn through future high street fund, would begin to bring the practical benefits of “levelling-up”.
Meanwhile, Andrew Fox-Hewitt, a firefighter who is deputy head of the Labour group in Newcastle-under-Lyme council, admitted that his party still had plenty of ground to regain, even if many of the voters who flipped to the Conservatives are now saying “never again”.
Pam, who works for the Staffordshire estate agents, Stephenson Browne, was unconvinced. She said the property market in the area had divebombed after Liz Truss’s “mini” Budget spooked the markets in October sending mortgage rates soaring.
“The phone stopped ringing overnight,” she said, adding that while household costs were spiralling, her wages remained stagnant, and there was nothing in the budget to help bridge the gap.
“I am pretty much on the fence politically. But when it impacts you and your family you have to look again. Would I vote Conservative? No,” she said.