The office of Jonathan Gullis, MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, offers a splash of colour on a drab, boarded-up high street; the union jack and a picture of Boris Johnson feature on the reinforced glass window of this Conservative redoubt in the former Labour heartlands.
But Gullis, like other Tory MPs defending seats in the “red wall”, is facing electoral oblivion according to the polls, as memories of the former prime minister — and his 2019 rout of the opposition party in the Midlands and north of England — start to fade.
One of Gullis’s Westminster colleagues said: “The red wall is dead. It’s possible we won’t hold any of the seats we won at the last election. Some people are just hanging around for their severance payments.”
If that swath of working-class, traditionally Labour-voting constituencies falls, it is likely that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government, with its majority of 69, will fall too.
Gullis, a restless and popular local campaigner, is less pessimistic, insisting all is not lost. But the rundown high street of Tunstall, at the heart of the “pits and pots” country of North Staffordshire, is a salutary reminder that change under the Tories has been slow.
He insisted he could hold on if Sunak provided an inspiring vision of the future and ensured local people could “see and feel change . . . At the moment we’re in danger. But things can be retrieved.”
The Conservatives made a net gain of 48 seats in the UK in 2019, marching through Brexit-voting, working-class Labour towns, including Stoke, with its ceramics industry and its long association with coal mining.
Gullis said his seat — which he secured with a 6,286 majority and had never before elected a Tory — was a bellwether because “whoever wins here, wins the next election”.
For now, the outlook for Gullis and colleagues nearby looks grim. A poll by Redfield and Wilton in 40 Tory-held red wall seats gave Labour a 23-point lead in late November.
The fall in support is not hard to fathom. Gullis — a rightwing, “anti-woke” former teacher — said three exceptional factors had helped him win in 2019: “Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson — in that order.”
The problem is they have all gone. Brexit is a taboo subject for mainstream politicians, while Corbyn, the leftwing Labour leader who alienated swaths of the north of England, is history.
The man who “got Brexit done” is also gone, much to Gullis’s regret. His office boasts pictures of Johnson, Churchill and Thatcher but not — so far at least — Sunak. Indeed, walking through the streets of Tunstall, it is easy to see why Gullis clings to the possibility of a Johnson comeback.
The good news for Sunak in Stoke is that while some voters mentioned his extreme wealth, many of them had yet to form a firm view of him, despite efforts by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer to present him as privileged and out of touch.
The bad news for Sunak is that he is not Johnson. Susan Boden, serving tea at the Market Grill in the town’s indoor market, said she had only lent her vote to the Conservatives. “We didn’t vote in Liz Truss or Sunak,” she said. “We voted for Boris. I won’t ever vote for them again.”
Linda Foster, a customer, said: “I’ve always voted Labour, but I voted for Boris Johnson last time. I liked what he said.” Foster said she would vote Labour at the next election, feeling that Tunstall and the surrounding area had been let down by successive Conservative administrations.
Johnson nostalgia is far from a national pastime, but it is widespread in Stoke. “I’ve been Labour all my life until Boris,” said Pat Wainwright, a haberdasher in the market. “He made mistakes but who in politics, or in life, doesn’t?”
Gullis’s problem is that with Johnson gone, all that remains is the former premier’s vow to “level up” areas such as Stoke. Delivery of that pledge has been a long time coming, and the evidence is so far patchy at best.
He listed government funding for a bus improvement strategy, a town improvement deal for nearby Kidsgrove and support from a levelling up fund, along with new Home Office jobs processing asylum claims.
But he conceded he had yet to see evidence that Sunak understood the problems facing places such as Tunstall, saying: “Rishi has yet to lay out that vision for this area — or for the country, if I’m honest.”
His fear is that, as the election approaches, Sunak and Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, in effect write off parts of the north and focus on circling the wagons in the Tory heartlands of the south.
“It’s a slight concern. There is not much talk of levelling up since Rishi took over with Jeremy as chancellor,” said Gullis, adding that he hoped next spring’s Budget would set out a positive vision.
Immigration is another major worry for voters. Stoke, which voted almost 70 per cent for Brexit in 2016, is one of the country’s biggest “dispersal” centres for migrants crossing the English Channel on small boats.
Gullis said that for MPs like him to stand any chance at the next election, Sunak had to “make Rwanda work” — in other words, move asylum seekers from Stoke to east Africa — get the economy working and start to level up.
Some Labour shadow cabinet ministers representing northern seats, normally averse to pre-election hubris, say they cannot see any recovery for the Conservatives in the red wall, especially as a recession starts to bite and public spending is squeezed.
One said: “There’s no way back for them. People were told things would change and they haven’t. They’ve got worse.” However, another senior member of Starmer’s team urged caution, warning that voters were switching to Labour but without any great enthusiasm.
Indeed, while much of the electorate has yet to form a strong view on Sunak, some voters already seem decided about Starmer. “He hasn’t got any oomph,” said one Labour voter on an estate on the edge of Tunstall.
Wainwright sums up a sense among voters, captured in polls, that Starmer spends his time “knocking” the Tories without saying what he believes in.
There is no sense in Tunstall that he has sealed the deal. Yet that may not ultimately matter, if voters in Stoke conclude that the promise of change offered by Brexit and Johnson has been a chimera.
“I’m voting Labour next time definitely,” said Boden, handing out bacon butties. “Starmer isn’t strong enough. But we have no choice.”