Jules Wilde has never voted for Britain’s Conservatives and would hate to do so at the Dec. 12 election, yet for the first time in his life, the 62-year-old carer is considering backing the governing party because of Brexit.
Wrapped up against icy wind in the northwestern English town of Crewe, Wilde is one of thousands of supporters of the main opposition Labour Party who Prime Minister Boris Johnson hopes to win over to secure a parliamentary majority and push through his “great new deal” to leave the European Union.
In regions of northern and central England which traditionally back Labour and are known as the “red wall”, Johnson’s team hopes to break the opposition party’s hold on voters, who have, sometimes for generations, rejected his party’s overtures.
Crewe and Nantwich constituency, which voted in favor of leaving the EU in a 2016 referendum, has sometimes been described as a bellwether, and anecdotal evidence suggests some diehard Labour supporters are edging towards the Conservatives.
Split between the industrial and railway town of Crewe and its more affluent neighbor Nantwich, only 48 more voters backed Labour than the Conservatives in 2017, making it a prime “swing seat” that Johnson’s team hopes to win back.
In Wilde’s case, the prime minister’s promise to “get Brexit done” seems to be working.
Born of personal experience caring for a friend who struggled to find the right healthcare, Wilde backs Brexit to control the levels of immigration from the EU he suspects is stretching Britain’s public services to the limit.
“I’d hate to vote Tory (Conservative). If there was a way of not voting Tory and still getting Brexit, I’d do it,” said Wilde, who is himself waiting for an operation.
“I am a bit frustrated with this situation, yes. Because it’s a complete reversal … It’s like the Tory party who I never support are doing something that I support, when the Labour Party who I would always support are doing something totally different that I don’t support.”
More than three years after Britain voted to leave the EU, traditional political divides have become blurred, with few able or willing to predict a victor in the December election which will determine how, when and even whether Brexit happens.
While Wilde considers backing the Conservatives for the first time, 79-year-old Mike Wilson, a retired doctor in Nantwich, says his dilemma is whether he can break his life-long support of the governing party to try to keep Britain in the EU.
Polls put the Conservatives well ahead for now, but have been unreliable in the past.
With many of the two parties’ instinctive assumptions torn apart, both have stepped up their targeting of individuals, largely by social media, to try to win votes, and to ensure that many people, tired of Brexit, turn out.
The Conservatives have promised increased funding for districts such as Crewe and Nantwich, while Labour also wants to inject money into public services after what it says is more than nine years of economic austerity under the governing party.
Both the main parties face threats. Some Conservatives want the Brexit Party, led by euroskeptic Nigel Farage, to stand down its candidate to give their party a free run at Crewe after he said he would not run in Conservative-held areas.
Labour, which has tried to unite its “leave” and “remain” factions, faces a twin threat from the Liberal Democrats who want to stop Britain’s departure from the EU, and a Brexit Party as determined as the Conservatives to break down the opposition party’s “red wall”.
Both the Conservative and Labour candidates in Crewe and Nantwich agree they need the support of traditional Labour-voting “leave” supporters.
“I think we have got a really clear vision for Brexit, a plan, as Boris says, is oven ready, ready to go, and I think people will vote for that,” said Kieran Mullan, the Conservative candidate in the campaign room at the Conservative club where pictures of war-time leader Winston Churchill adorn the walls.
“Literally every day I speak to people that have traditionally voted Labour and are wanting to vote for me.”
But for Laura Smith, the Labour candidate and incumbent after winning the seat for the first time two-and-a-half years ago, the hope is that people will see the bigger picture, and put their faith in her, a local woman, and her record.
Asked if Labour can keep its leave voters, she said: “I really, really hope so, and all I can say to them is that I am committed that if I am elected I will be looking for that credible leave deal for us to be able to put to a second referendum.”
“People are sick to death of Brexit, they really are, and what Labour is doing, is they are trying to bring a conclusion to this, they are trying to move it forward.”
But for many, like Wilde, the choice is bewildering.
“I haven’t decided yet,” he said, sighing. “It’s just too confusing.”
Reporting by Elizabeth Piper; Additional reporting by Iona Serrapica and Phil Noble; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne