On the ground in Tory stronghold challenged by Westminster sleaze

Can Labour overturn a 19,000 majority in a major by-election upset? 'The National' visits the Old Bexley and Sidcup constituency in south-east London to find out

Amid the upmarket Little Waitrose grocery shops, gentrified restaurants and tree-lined avenues, there is some unease in Old Bexley and Sidcup that its long-established Conservative Party dominance is becoming vulnerable.

In the south-east London constituency, its Tory voters are finding the ongoing sleaze allegations against the party’s MPs rather troubling.

MPs voting remotely from the Caribbean while pocketing millions of pounds in legal work; lobbying for companies while on the payroll; orders to save the MP at the centre of that row by ripping up the rule book; the spectre of the MPs' expenses scandal returning after more than 10 years, as it emerges politicians have been claiming expenses for flats that are rented out.

It all has left the public feeling uneasy, at the very least.

On December 2, voters will be the first to be asked to articulate their thoughts in a by-election for their next MP, following the death last month of the admired representative James Brokenshire, at the age of 53.

It is the first of several upcoming by-elections that will test the Government's mettle.

Brokenshire had built up a solid reputation that translated into a majority approaching 19,000 votes at the last general election. But given the fortnight of headlines screaming Tory sleaze from the British press, that redoubt appears less formidable.

First came the Owen Paterson debacle in which the government’s clumsy attempt to undo a 30-day suspension for breaking lobbying rules by changing the rules themselves ended in a painful and undignified U-turn.

That was then followed by the exposure of former attorney general Geoffrey Cox earning almost £1 million in his role as a lawyer working in the British Virgin Islands.

There's no suggestion he has broken any rules.

The government has been made to look inept and self-serving. So, could the unthinkable happen – as it did in the Chesham and Amersham by-election in June – and the Tories actually lose Bexley?

“I think the government has been an honest and said they've made a mistake,” the Conservative candidate Louie French told The National.

“People are moving past that locally,” he added, suggesting that for many voters “Westminster can feel like a faraway place”.

That might be overly optimistic. Voters questioned by The National in the less affluent area of Foots Cray might not be so ready to vote Conservative, which many did in the 2019 election – largely to resolve Brexit.

“I lent the Tories my vote to get Brexit done and I couldn’t stand the idea of voting for [former opposition Labour Party leader] Jeremy Corbyn,” said Mary, 45, a care worker, suggesting that her switch to the Conservatives might have been a one-time event.

Her neighbour, kitchen designer Sadia Malik, 42, was similarly concerned. “Corruption is not something I would think could happen in Britain. I read a lot of international news and this is something you’d expect to happen in other countries.”

But she remained undecided on whether to cast her vote for Labour or Conservative.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson paid a visit to the constituency today, underlining the importance of the seat to his party.

He visited a local pharmacy in Sidcup and denied that the sleaze scandal would see Labour take over.

In a reply to a question on the issue, he said: “No, because Louie French is running a great campaign on the big issues that matter to people.

“(He is) building on the legacy of James Brokenshire, ensuring that Queen Mary Hospital has ever better faculties and making sure that we have ever safer streets in Greater London.”

He said he did not “underestimate the vital importance” of MPs refraining from engaging in paid advocacy.

Mr Johnson said: “I do not in any way underestimate the vital importance of the transparency of MPs working number one for their constituents and not engaging in paid advocacy.

“We have got to make sure that the standards committee is allowed to get on and do its work and the Commissioner for Standards gets on and does her work.”

Labour candidate Daniel Francis will be hoping the unsavoury headlines continue, so he can win Ms Malik’s vote.

“There is a great deal of disillusionment with the Conservatives,” he told The National while canvassing in Foots Cray.

“They’ve shown it’s one rule for them, one for everybody else and there’s a great deal of anger, particularly in people who lent their vote to the Conservatives back in 2019. Voters are switching back to us.”

The local councillor, 44, who is out canvassing three times a day, vowed to fight for every vote, claiming that the Tories had become “very complacent”.

While Mr French, 33, would strongly argue otherwise, there are grounds for complacency.

“The sad thing is that I will probably still vote Tory,” said John, the manager of a nearby fish and chip shop.

“Labour is still not showing real opposition, there is no real fight on the minimum wage and basically it is two parties in one. They’re just a wasted vote.”

While he suggested there should be “consequences” for rule-breaking MPs he had sympathy for the prime minster.

“Boris Johnson has got many faults but when you look at the hand he was dealt with on the pandemic, then it has been really tough to make his mark.”

Among the banks, high street shops and pubs in Sidcup, there also appears little appetite for a minor revolution.

“I’ll stick with Boris,” said Lisa, 32, waiting to pick up her child from kindergarten. “I think the sleaze needs to be addressed but I don’t want to vote for a different party. Boris tried to do his best in the pandemic where he was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.”

An 87-year-old pensioner smoking a cigarette outside the Tailor’s Chalk pub was more direct. “I’ve always voted Conservative and I’m not going to vote for Labour,” he said.

Mr French will hope those sentiments are widely reflected and that the Westminster sleaze accusations will be largely forgotten in three weeks.

But Labour will be hoping too that the sleaze arguments will cut through.

“People are fed up with this government and they won't be taken for fools,” said Ellie Reeves, Labour MP for Lewisham West and Penge constituency in south London, while canvassing with Mr Francis.

“They know this isn't right. This isn't decent. This should not happen in politics.”

Labour is hoping the sleaze accusations will persuade Old Bexley and Sidcup voters that the Conservatives are “just looking out for themselves”.

In the Chesham and Amersham vote, there was a massive 30 per cent swing to the Liberal Democrats that overturned the previous Tory majority of 16,000 votes.

If Old Bexley and Sidcup produces a similar upset, it will demonstrate Chesham and Amersham was not a one-off and that the Conservatives have serious electoral issues in the south of England.

By-election challenges

Southend West: A date has yet to be set for the by-election in Southend West following the killing of Conservative MP Sir David Amess. Due to the circumstances of his death, opposition parties will not stand against the Tory candidate.

Old Bexley and Sidcup: Former Conservative minister James Brokenshire died at the age of 53 in October. after being diagnosed with lung cancer in 2017.

He had been a member of parliament since 2005 and held a number of ministerial positions under successive Tory governments, including Minister of State for Security and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Daniel Frances is the Labour candidate, while Louie French is standing for the Tories.

North Shropshire: Owen Paterson’s resignation following the lobbying scandal leaves another constituency in need of an MP. A date has yet to be set for the by-election, which will be hotly contested.

He stepped after a Boris Johnson’s government performed a U-turned on supporting him.

The government successfully ordered its MPs to block a six-week suspension for Mr Paterson, who was censured by a parliamentary watchdog for lobbying on behalf of companies which paid him more than £100,000.

But a backlash against plans for a new standards system prompted the government to draw back from its plans and promise a new vote on Mr Paterson.

The MP responded by announcing that he would quit after describing the last two years as an “indescribable nightmare” and claiming he had been unable to clear his name under the current system.

He said the pressure of the inquiry – which concluded he was responsible for an “egregious” breach of the rules – contributed to his wife’s suicide in June last year.

Leicester East: Another by-election seems likely after MP Claudia Webbe was handed a 10-week jail term, suspended for two years, at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on November 4 after she was convicted of threatening to throw acid in the face of Michelle Merritt, a friend of her boyfriend Lester Thomas.

She has formally begun her bid to overturn her harassment conviction – and was warned her sentence could yet be increased.

The appeal is listed for March 9 2022 and could last up to three days.

Any recall petition, which would trigger a by-election if at least 10 per cent of her constituents in Leicester East support it, would have to wait until the outcome of her appeal.

She sits in the House of Commons as an independent, after being expelled from the Labour Party over the conviction.

Updated: November 12th 2021, 4:29 PM