Rishi Sunak is “out of touch with reality” and “absolutely not” on the side of the working class, voters in the “red wall” seat of Leigh told the Guardian after the first autumn statement of his premiership.
The prime minister and the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, spent the days leading up to Thursday claiming those with the broadest shoulders would pay their fair share. Jeremy Hunt repeated the mantra “Britain is a compassionate country”, and pledged to protect the most vulnerable in society amid the worst fall in living standards on record.
But members of a focus group from the 40,000-strong town in greater Manchester, organised by More in Common for the Guardian, believe Sunak and Hunt have left “working people to foot this bill”. They added that the government had even shunned the middle class. “I voted Tory at the last election, but would I do it again? I’m not sure,” said Tracy, a 52-year-old team sales manager.
“I have worked since I was 14 years old, working for more than 30 years and I should now be reaping those rewards as I’ve never missed a day off work. But it feels like someone is saying I can’t because someone else is taking it away because of greed. God bless those single mothers,” she added, before signalling how much the oil giant BP had earned in profits this year.
Sunak’s decisions were perceived to look only after himself and other wealthy people and not make the group’s circumstances better, they said. This, they added, was the main takeaway from the budget, rather than it being Hunt’s first test as chancellor or a consequence of Liz Truss’s mini-budget.
Asked to describe the budget in a few words, they said it was “driving anxiety”, “mental”, “unrealistic”, “bankrupt” and “shit”.
The prime minister has “no idea what it’s like to live month to month, or what it’s like to live on the bread line and decide whether you will put your kids in clothes or give them food that month”, said Jade. Sunak had “married into a billionaire’s family”, the 32-year-old said, and would only ever “help his kind of people”.
She added: “Liz Truss is just a name to blame. This has been a long time coming. We were always going to be up against these tax rises.” Colleen, 30, who works in finance, agreed, describing Truss as a “scapegoat”.
Primary school site manager Craig, 42, who did not find the gloomy budget “a big surprise” given how much money had been spent over the last three to four years, said Truss had “inherited” a lot of problems from Boris when he was forced out. “It was always a poisoned chalice,” he added. But the group had no such sympathy for Sunak or Hunt.
They admitted to not being aware of the non-dom status loophole that approximately 68,300 individuals in the UK use, but were furious when they realised the government had not made them pay their fair share of tax. “How should you be able to get away with that?” Jade asked, leading to her and others to question whether Sunak was “on their side”.
All members responded with a resounding “no”. “Absolutely not,” Tracy added, claiming he’s not “in touch with reality” or the working class because of his millionaire family. “I don’t think he’s a leader of this country. I don’t think he actually understands. He’s apparently very intelligent, but I don’t think he’s in touch with reality.”
Members of the focus group also questioned if there were any politicians from any party who understood what it can be like living month to month. “Labour are telling us what we want to hear because they want to be in,” Jade said.
Craig added: “If you look at anyone going to the post [of prime minister or leading a party] now, most of them haven’t lived hand-to-mouth, and have not been part of the working class.”
Craig described how difficult it had been seeing his real-term wage fall and feeling as though he could not receive support from the government. When asked if it was right for the government to raise benefits in line with inflation, he was the only member able to respond, classing it as a “sore subject”. “In real terms, [my partner and I are] worse off than we were two and a half years ago. We’re above the benefits level, but we’re not on 50 or 60 grand a year,” he said.
Louise, a 33-year-old single mother of five who works in a specialist children’s school, said she had been forced not to put the heating on, and endures hearing her children asking for warmth. “One of my children is autistic, and if he gets cold he’s in meltdown. It’s got to the point where my kids will say: ‘Mum, I’ve put my hoodie on, I’ve but a blanket on, and I’m still cold,’” she added.
Tracy said: “The government has lost sight of what made this country great at one time. We’re now at a point where people question what you have to do to make a better life for yourself?”
Colleen, 30, also questioned why she had voted Conservative. “In terms of credibility, the Conservatives have gone down and down and down,” she said, with group members nodding unanimously.
The pension triple lock was a much easier subject, as everyone thought pensioners deserved to enjoy the money they had worked hard for over their lifetime. Charity product manager Tiffany, 30, added: “Just because they live in a million-pound house, doesn’t mean that their heating has been on.”
Leigh went to the Tories for the first time in more than 100 years at the last election. Recent research has found Sunak is likely to win back blue wall voters who abandoned the Tories under Boris Johnson over Partygate and Brexit, but has more of a challenge wooing typical red wall voters. Fewer than a third (32%) who switched to the Tories in 2019 said they would continue to vote the same way if asked, according to a poll by Public First for More in Common.
Luke Tryl, the UK director of More in Common, said: “Whether it was rising prices, rising interest rates or the measures announced in this budget, this group were angry and fed up at working families being constantly squeezed.
“The biggest worry for the Tories must be that while this group of first-time 2019 Tory voters understood the importance of getting the economy back on track, they didn’t think the people making the decisions about how to sort things out understood their lives or were on their side.”