Reform candidate Ben Habib, centre, made his pitch at the Fine Dining burger bar in Wellinborough last week.Photo: Gary Calton/The Observer
It’s just after midday on market day in Wellingborough city center and the owner of mobile burger bar Fine Diner, William Holden, is waiting for his next customer.
The last stallholder has already packed up his things and left and the square is almost empty. On the walls are photos of what it looked like in 1904, full of traders and vibrancy, at a time when Wellingborough was thriving and selling shoes and boots to the world.
When he voted Conservative in 2019 – to “get Brexit done” – Holden had hoped that things would get better, that the city’s good times would return. “But I see very little that has changed,” he says. ‘Where are all the new hospitals? I do not see them. Bills rise and prices rise. And the boats are still a real problem.
“I have people who come here at the start of the week to buy a cup of tea and they say, ‘I can’t pay you until Friday’. They have so little money. It’s not what I imagined.”
Asked how he might vote in next week’s by-election on February 15, triggered by the suspension of Tory MP Peter Bone over claims he bullied a former staff member and exposed his genitals a decade ago, he is at a loss. “I’m struggling to get an idea of who it will be,” he says.
That is until the candidate for Reform UK, the new incarnation of the Brexit Party, Ben Habib, a businessman and former MEP, comes along to give a talk about returning boats full of asylum seekers to France, to ensure that Brexit is properly implemented. lowering taxes and lowering energy bills.
“I’m not saying I’m convinced, but it’s something to think about,” says Holden as he studies Habib’s campaign flyers.
Labour, which controlled Wellingborough (a constituency that includes Rushden and surrounding towns and villages) from 1997 to 2005, is now on the verge of reversing the majority of the more than 18,000 votes won by Bone in 2019, in what of the more The predictable ‘election shocks’ of recent years are the extent of the recent decline of the Tory party.
The circumstances of Bone’s departure and the subsequent choice of his partner Helen Harrison as the Tory candidate to replace him have left locals angry and disillusioned. “It leaves a very bad impression and looks bad for our city. A lot of people won’t vote Tory anymore,” says David Smart, an 81-year-old pensioner who says he will vote for Labor because “they can’t be worse than this bunch”.
But while a Labor victory would spell more trouble for Rishi Sunak and the Conservatives, so would the prospect of substantial progress for Reform UK.
On the streets of Wellinborough, most people have heard of reform and many say they are toying with it to vote for it. The head office in Sheep Street is the most visible of all parties. “In previous midterm elections I helped with, most people didn’t really know who we were,” Habib says.
“This time it’s different. The recognition factor is about a hundred times higher.”
It is possible, he says, that this new party, now polling 10% in some national polls, could draw the Tories close and even push them into third place.
If that were to happen, it would likely spark greater Tory panic than another Labor victory, demonstrating the extent to which Reform UK could split the right-wing vote at the next general election, especially if Nigel Farage comes fully on board.
“I’m getting a lot of thumbs up, a lot of pats on the back, I haven’t seen that in the other midterm elections,” said Habib, who is also vice-chairman of the party.
“The biggest challenge is that we don’t have the armies of people that the other two major parties have, we don’t have the information about votes in different households that the others have, but I think the way the sand shifts, it changes the game is on. Everything is possible. People who are angry come to vote. People who are angry vote for change. They are not going to vote conservative!”
The Tories have clearly all but given up in this election. Tory MPs are refusing to campaign in Wellinborough for fear of being ridiculed and insulted, and because they think it would be a complete waste of their time. The party headquarters previously used by Bone was closed on Friday and showed no sign of life.
In the window were posters of Harrison and her promises, including those to “stop the boats”, “improve our NHS” and “fix our roads”.
Right outside was an abandoned car with a flat tire that has been there so long that grass is growing on the hood and out of the trunk. On the windscreen was a red DVLA notice, dated Friday, warning the owner of a possible £1,000 fine for unpaid tax.
Liz Campbell, who lives opposite, says that since the furor over Bone’s suspension, the outside of the office has been defaced with pink paint. Wellingborough, she says, deserves better, someone who will stand up for local issues. She plans to vote for independent candidate Marion Turner-Hawes, who is fighting to save trees that are under threat in the area. “Everyone except Peter Bone,” she says.
In contrast to the Tories, Labour’s candidate Gen Kitchen, a charity fundraiser who grew up in Northamptonshire, has in recent weeks enlisted the help of around 100 Labor MPs, including Chesterfield’s Toby Perkins, who has taken on a leading political role.
Perkins accepts that “the reforms take some of the vote” but believes the Tories’ failures, both nationally and locally, give his party a serious chance. “Many people feel very let down by politics in general and at the national level, but also locally in the region,” he says, referring not only to the Bone case, but also to the actual bankruptcy of the the Tory-led Northamptonshire County Council in 2018. as well as other controversies.
It’s hard to find much Tory activity on the streets of Wellingborough on a Friday afternoon, with just thirteen days to go before the election. But the literature the party produces shows that it recognizes that reform is now a serious problem.
A campaign newsletter going through letterboxes warns that “Voting reform could let Labor in.” A Reform UK staffer said of the magazine: “Before, in previous elections, they didn’t even recognize us. Now they talk about us as a threat. That is a breakthrough for us.”