Like a touring pantomime villain, Boris Johnson swept into Wakefield to a chorus of jeers. A hastily-assembled crowd chanted, “Where’s your brother gone?” and waved EU flags as the prime minister bounded into the West Yorkshire city, hours after the surprise resignation of his sibling and cabinet colleague.
In Wakefield itself, most people met his arrival with a weary sigh. “They promise you this and that and it never materialises – we’ve no reason to trust them,” said Clare Ramsden, 44, over a counter of golden-brown pastries at Thomas the Baker. “They’re sat in their office dictating to you – and he’s [Boris] got all this money but he never speaks to normal folk.”
Johnson did not stick around to canvass the voters of Wakefield, with whom he might expect a favourable audience. The cathedral city voted two-thirds for Brexit in 2016 and appears not to have changed its mind: Nigel Farage’s Brexit party finished top in the city’s European election vote in May with 44.6% of the vote (Labour was second with 17%).
The city that sent coal, corn and clothes to the world in the 18th century has dispatched a Labour MP to parliament in every election since 1932. But Mary Creagh has a delicate majority of just 2,176 votes, and her vocal endorsement of a second referendum has put Wakefield firmly in the sights of Brexiters.
“I weren’t one of Boris’s biggest fans, but I admire him for what he’s done,” said Hussain Lakin, 53, selling fresh tuna and haddock opposite Wakefield’s towering cathedral. “I was a Theresa May fan but I think she got stabbed in the back by her own politicians, and I think they’ve done the same to Boris.”
Previously a lifelong Labour voter, Lakin said he ditched the party when Jeremy Corbyn became leader and has backed the Conservatives since 2016. He would vote Tory in any general election, he said, and hoped for a Boris-Farage coalition. He stands by his decision three years ago to vote leave, he said, due partly to immigration: “I’m not racist at all – I’m half-Arab – but there’s too many Slovakians, Romanians, [and] a lot of them don’t work.”
Outside Royal Amusements on the city’s main shopping strip, Kathleen Taylor, 73, said she was “so angry” that politicians had “let us down” by not hauling the UK out of Europe already. Taylor said she does not regret voting for Brexit but is fearful about the potential effect of leaving without a deal: “I’m for a deal, but it’s got to be a good deal. And if he doesn’t get a good deal and he doesn’t get a Brexit, I shall never vote again – and I’ve voted ever since I could.”
On his cosmetics stall, Mark Evans, 60, said politicians had worn people down to the point where “they could do something really drastic” and voters would just shrug. He said he could no longer trust any promises or pledges from MPs and that Boris was “just after power – he doesn’t give a toss about the country”.
Evans, a remain voter who has run a market stall in Wakefield for nearly a decade, said he had always voted Labour all his life but wouldn’t anymore. “I’d be going down the Liberal Democrats now,” he said. “As far as I can see, Labour are going nowhere with Jeremy Corbyn. But these people who are saying ‘get out, get out’ like [Jacob] Rees-Mogg and all the rest of them – if we go out and it all goes to crap, it’s not going to affect them. They’ve got the money to get over it.”
Enjoying an early-evening pint in the Moodies pub, George Theodopolis, 68, said he voted to remain in 2016 but now firmly believed Britain should leave the EU. “I voted to remain but we’ve realised that nobody listens to us. What’s happened to parliament? Who would I vote for now? We are the laughing stock of Europe.”