Boris Johnson’s popularity dip may be such that Tory voters in Old Bexley and Sidcup brand the prime minister a “blithering idiot” and question his qualities as a leader, but Labour still faces an uphill battle to win the seat in Thursday’s byelection.
The message Labour’s challenger, Daniel Francis, was selling to waverers who backed the Conservatives in 2019 was that the result was “not going to change the government, but it is a chance to send a message”.
He admitted it would be an “enormous challenge” to overturn the 19,000 majority earned by James Brokenshire, who died from cancer at the age of 53 last month.
“That takes a lot of different dynamics to happen – of Tories staying at home, Tories switching, movement between lots of other parties,” Francis said. “We’re in it to try and do that.”
He stressed that some people who deserted Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership were “looking at the party again”, but confessed there was “still work to do” to persuade them to vote for it.
The contest comes at a tricky time for Johnson, following criticism of his handling of sleaze scandals, a fall for the Conservatives in the national polls and pressure from Tory MPs who are desperately urging him to tighten up his act.
With less than a week until the first in a series of three – possibly four – byelections, voters in the south London suburban seat are considering what kind of message they should send.
Sue Buckley, a retired Sidcup resident, said she would “love Boris to sort himself out” and “might vote Labour”. However her criticisms extended to wider frustrations with the government. “Someone needs a kick up the butt,” she said. “I don’t believe them any more. They backtrack a lot.”
A few roads over, a man who did not want to give his name said he normally voted Conservative. However he had been struck by the prime minister’s rambling speech to the Confederation of British Industry earlier in the week, and called him a “blithering idiot”.
Francis claimed the issue of sleaze and Johnson’s handling of it had grown recently.
“The campaign’s changed as we’ve gone on,” he said, recounting a conversation with a Tory-voting nurse who complained to him about MPs with second jobs not having enough time to resolve NHS staffing shortages. He also recalled a pensioner who said she had never voted for Labour, but who was “so concerned about the prime minister’s behaviour that she’s already voted for me – with her postal vote”.
Francis even said fellow parents at the school gates who usually voted Conservative had a part in persuading him to stand.
Labour supporters who spoke to the Guardian after being canvassed by Francis spoke highly of their former MP. Two, Alison and Ben Page, called Brokenshire “well-liked”, but voiced hopes Labour would perform better against a different Tory candidate. “He might have a chance this time, because people were voting for [Brokenshire],” they said.
But to get over the line, Francis also needs to sweep up support from other leftwing parties. Several people who said they voted Green suggested they would not switch their vote.
Francis was buoyant in his belief that the animosity some voters had against Labour at the last election was dissipating under Keir Starmer’s leadership, even if this did not mean a win for him. “I hope that the result shows that Labour is moving back in the right direction,” he added.
Francis has been supported with visits from around half a dozen of the shadow cabinet, while Louie French, the Conservatives’ candidate, has been joined for flyering and door-knocking sessions by senior cabinet ministers including Johnson, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab.
French’s team did not respond to requests for an interview. There are 11 candidates in total standing in the byelection on 2 December.