Why Boris Johnson faces first big test in the 'Breckland bellwether'

Vox Pops in Mattishall about the local election.
Byline: Sonya Duncan

Vox Pops in Mattishall about the local election. Byline: Sonya Duncan - Credit: Sonya Duncan

Pundits are looking to this month's parliamentary by-elections as the next stumbling block for the PM. But his first electoral test since surviving a vote of no-confidence actually comes this week in rural Norfolk. NOAH VICKERS reports

It is an election which ordinarily would not attract much attention.

Voters are going to the polls in the village of Mattishall on Thursday, in a by-election to select a new representative on Breckland Council.

Debate would normally be dominated by issues like housing, bins and the state of the grass verges.

But a new topic is intruding... the leadership of the country.

Thursday's vote will be the UK's first election to be held in the wake of Monday's vote of no-confidence in Boris Johnson, which saw 41pc of Tory MPs say they had lost faith in the prime minister.

While the Conservatives insist local issues will dominate the race, independent candidate Maggie Oechsle says anti-Tory feelings have been stoked by partygate and the decision of MPs not to remove Mr Johnson as prime minister. 

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And it won't be just voters in Mattishall itself coming out to vote, as the ward also includes Yaxham, Garverston, Hardingham, East Tuddenham, Whinburgh and Westfield.

The vote is happening because of the resignation of Conservative Ian Martin, who stood down due to ill health in April. 

In a parting shot, Mr Martin criticised Breckland Council as being too party-political and not transparent enough - a description the authority’s Tory deputy leader said he did not recognise. 

Maggie Oeschle and Ian Martin

Resigned Conservative councillor Ian Martin has endorsed independent candidate Maggie Oeschle to replace him on Breckland Council - Credit: Supplied by the candidate's agent

Mr Martin has since endorsed Ms Oechsle as his replacement, urging voters to support her over the Conservative candidate, Paul Plummer. There is also a Labour candidate, Kendra Cogman.

Ms Oechsle said “the anti-Tory vibe” is “very evident” on the campaign trail.

Maggie Oeschle is standing as an independent candidate in Breckland Council's Mattishall ward by-election

Maggie Oeschle is standing as an independent candidate in Breckland Council's Mattishall ward by-election - Credit: Supplied by the candidate's agent

“I have been surprised at the depth of upset about the partygate shenanigans. If Downing Street feels the damage is over, they need to think again.”

Mr Plummer was approached for comment but was not available.

His agent, Dr Christopher Kemp, said: “What happened on Monday in Westminster is irrelevant as far as this by-election is concerned. 

“The people of Mattishall have got to choose who is going to represent them on Breckland Council for the next 11 months."

Dr Kemp said that the Conservative administration at Breckland provides “top quality services” and that the by-election was “not a referendum on Boris Johnson”.

Asked whether Mr Plummer was pleased with the prime minister winning the vote of confidence, Dr Kemp said: “That’s not an appropriate thing for us to talk about in public.”

Conservative candidate Paul Plummer

Conservative candidate Paul Plummer - Credit: Mid Norfolk Conservatives

Asked whether Mr Plummer believes Mr Johnson should fight the next general election for the Conservatives, Dr Kemp responded: “He has not given me any view on that, and I’m not going to ask him the question, because this is all irrelevant to what my job is and to what his job is, on Thursday.”

He insisted Mr Plummer's campaign was going “very well” and that local issues were dominating.  

Ms Oechsle said that she too believed “local council politics should be about local policies which affect local people”.

“I would like to hope that the residents of Mattishall ward will vote on Thursday for a change to the status quo and vote for an independent councillor who will not toe any party-political line,” she said.

But what about the voters themselves in the so-called 'Breckland bellwether'?

Charlotte Butcher, a 39-year-old support worker, said she would probably vote Conservative on Thursday. 

Vox Pops in Mattishall about the local election.
Charlotte Butcher
Byline: Sonya Duncan

Vox Pops in Mattishall about the local election. Charlotte Butcher Byline: Sonya Duncan - Credit: Sonya Duncan

“I think Boris [Johnson] has done really well getting us through Covid. Nobody knew what to do really and I think he’s done really well getting us all vaccinated. 

“As far as the parties are concerned, it’s difficult, because they were doing long hours. 

“At first, I was really angry because I thought he’s had this party and we were in lockdown.

“But actually, when you look at it, and when the evidence has come out, they were all working long hours, trying to get us through Covid.”

Ms Butcher said that over time, she had started to care less about the issue. 

“I think we’ve just got to move on, it’s no good dwelling on it,” she said. 

She added that Mr Johnson was “better than [Labour leader Sir Keir] Starmer anyway”.

“I think he [Johnson] does do well… He’s a bit of a plonker but he’s down to earth.”

Trevor Talbot, 75 and retired, said he hadn’t been aware of Thursday’s by-election and didn’t expect he would vote, but that he tends to vote Conservative in general elections. 

Vox Pops in Mattishall about the local election.
Trevor Talbot
Byline: Sonya Duncan

Vox Pops in Mattishall about the local election. Trevor Talbot Byline: Sonya Duncan - Credit: Sonya Duncan

“I like old Boris… though I’m not sure how long he’ll last in there [as PM, after Monday’s confidence vote].

“It’s silly things that he’s done, but I think he’s still probably the best bloke.” 

Asked for Mr Johnson’s positives, Mr Talbot said: “He got us out of Europe, didn’t he, and I think that’s why they [the rebels in his party] want to get him out.”

On partygate, he said: “I feel sorry for the people whose partners died, and they couldn’t go and see them, but this is all out of proportion, I think.”

Vox Pops in Mattishall about the local election.
Byline: Sonya Duncan

Vox Pops in Mattishall about the local election. Byline: Sonya Duncan - Credit: Sonya Duncan

Chris Barrett, in his early 70s and retired, said: “It’s all in turmoil, basically. 

“No matter how you look at it, it appears to be one rule for one, but not the other.”

He added that he was also very concerned about the cost of living crisis - as well as local issues like parking. 

And on the confidence vote, he asked: “Who would you put in there [to replace Johnson]?”

He said he wasn’t sure who to vote for, who wasn’t a Conservative.

Other people from the local area, who live just outside the ward, also shared their thoughts.

Debbie Cane, a 55-year-old housekeeper who lives in Toftwood, Dereham, said: “He hasn’t had the easiest premiership has he?

Vox Pops in Mattishall about the local election.
Debbie Cane
Byline: Sonya Duncan

Vox Pops in Mattishall about the local election. Debbie Cane Byline: Sonya Duncan - Credit: Sonya Duncan

“Everything has gone wrong, since he came into power. He almost died as well. 

“I think people are being a little bit hard on him, quite honestly, I really do. Give the bloke a chance - he’s a human being like the rest of us.

“I’m disappointed, because at the end of the day when you’re in power [you should follow the rules]... OK they got caught out, being a bit naughty, but I know people who were also a bit naughty, do you know what I mean?

“Keir Starmer’s getting on my nerves. He’s just doing my head in. He’s so up his own derriere, if you know what I mean. And he’s been caught out himself, hasn’t he?

“And who else are you going to put in power anyway? I think Boris is probably the strongest character for the job.”

Heather Gordon, who lives just over the district border in Welborne, south Norfolk, said she was not impressed by the decision of 211 Conservative MPs to keep Mr Johnson in place as PM. 

Vox Pops in Mattishall about the local election.
Heather Gordon
Byline: Sonya Duncan

Vox Pops in Mattishall about the local election. Heather Gordon Byline: Sonya Duncan - Credit: Sonya Duncan

“I thought it was wrong,” she said. 

“I don’t think he [Boris Johnson] really realises what he did - that he partied and told everyone else that he didn’t break the rules.

“When everyone else, virtually, knew what the rules were… why did he say them in the first place, if he can’t keep them?”

The 78-year-old retiree, who has voted for a mixture of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in the past, said that partygate and Monday’s confidence vote would “no doubt” push her away from the ruling party the next time she casts her ballot. 

Vox Pops in Mattishall about the local election.
Byline: Sonya Duncan

Vox Pops in Mattishall about the local election. Byline: Sonya Duncan - Credit: Sonya Duncan

Alex, a 22-year-old who lives in Norwich and didn’t want to give her surname, said: “I don’t care for Boris at all.

“I think he’s incompetent. I don’t really care for the Conservative Party at all, but I would rather they had someone competent.”

She added that partygate was unlikely to affect her vote, because she “would never vote Conservative” anyway.