Wrexham, North Wales
To window cleaner Andrew Atkinson, Theresa May’s ‘blue-collar Conservatism’ is not just a slogan. It’s what he is. For the duration of the general election, gap-toothed, 32-year-old Atkinson has hung up his chamois leathers and water-fed poles and taken to campaigning on doorsteps in a bid to become Wrexham’s first Conservative MP. The campaign is costing him a fortune in lost jobs.
Atkinson is a broad-shouldered lad who left home at 17 to earn a living as a self-employed squeegee wallah (‘glass hygiene technician, please,’ he jokes). He has the square jawline of Buzz Lightyear and an unaffected way with housewives. You half expect them to say: ‘Give us a squirt of Windolene and a quick rub-down while you’re here, love.’
Atkinson beetles around Wrexham in a battered old Ford Ka, borrowed from his wife. He was a Leave supporter but his politics are moderate, small-state, sceptical of welfare. His campaign is resolutely local: how to sort out Wrexham town centre and its drugs problem, and how to get Westminster to pay attention to this part of Wales. The small Tory team is pretty well organised, with volunteers ranging from the ages of 17 to 80, working under the command of a briskly efficient lady from Chester.
Touring the town’s Gwersyllt area with Atkinson for a couple of hours one morning this week, we did not come across a single out-and-proud Labour voter. Gwersyllt is a lower middle-class area, tidy, mixed Labour-Plaid-Tory-Lib Dem in local elections. A couple of people hummed and hawed a bit, possibly too polite to tell Atkinson that they were not keen on him. But by far the more common reaction was a spontaneous, almost blurted-out phrase: ‘I’ve never voted Conservative in my life but this time I intend to.’ Here, in the flesh, was the Tory swing suggested by opinion polls.
A retired 58-year-old lorry mechanic who, unlike most of Wrexham, voted Remain in the EU referendum, said he was switching from ‘always Labour’ to Tory because ‘we’ve got to let the politicians get on with Brexit — I may be mad but I feel we have to trust them’. His wife had not yet decided how to vote. David Foulkes, 72, ex-RAF Regiment and usually a Labour or Plaid Cymru voter, was switching to blue because he disliked Jeremy Corbyn’s history of supporting nuclear disarmament.
‘I can’t have that,’ said Mr Foulkes, who was waging his own form of apocalypse against the ants in his garden. (He was putting down Borax with sugar and hot water — apparently it makes ants explode.) Mr Foulkes likes Mrs May’s resilient spirit. We left him to his handiwork before ants started combusting.
Across the street, a homeowner revealed that she was voting Tory because she owed her home to Margaret Thatcher, having bought under the right-to-buy scheme. A scruffy passer-by, on hearing me ask the woman what she thought of Mr Corbyn, shouted out: ‘He’s a tosser!’
Also nearby we came across a man who should not have been where he was: he was an adulterer visiting his girlfriend ‘out of hours’. Oops. As he hurriedly closed the door he was good enough to say ‘If it’s any consolation, I’m pretty sure she’ll be voting Conservative.’
At the 2015 election, Atkinson stood for David Cameron’s Tories and lost by 1,831 votes to Labour time-server Ian Lucas, the MP here since 2001. Ukip took 15 per cent of the votes in that election but the party is not putting up a candidate this time.
Although Mr Lucas is trying to distance himself from Comrade Corbyn, calling himself an ‘independent voice’, few locals we met on the doorsteps seemed convinced. A woman in her seventies who asked to remain anonymous said that she and her husband, lifelong Labourites, were voting Tory (‘We can’t believe we’re doing it’) because they did not trust Mr Corbyn or his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. ‘Our children are horrified,’ she said. ‘They like Corbyn. But we lived through the Michael Foot days.’
Natalie Edwards, 50, a stay-at-home mum, did not necessarily mind Corbyn but knew Councillor Atkinson’s record locally and liked it. Her husband was possibly still leaning to Labour but she was ‘working on him’. Time and again there came comments comparing Mrs May to Mrs Thatcher —and grumbles that Mr Lucas (a vociferous Remainer) and Labour had ‘taken our votes for granted’.
Atkinson’s volunteers included octogenarian Terry, who said he had never known such warmth towards the Conservatives in Wrexham. In past elections, blue--rosetted campaigners here have had front doors slammed in their faces, with much muttering about ‘Eton-educated toffs’. There is none of that this time.
Brexit was not as big an issue as Mrs May’s toughness, along with a general sense that Labour (and Corbyn) were heading in the wrong direction. Atkinson says if he loses on 8 June, he’ll be back up his ladder the next day, whistling as he washes. But if our morning in Gwersyllt was any guide, his window squeegees could remain dry for at least the next five years.