At Wakefield bus station on Wednesday morning, Dennis Leadbeater stood behind his sweet stall and smiled wryly after being asked what he thought of Boris Johnson.
“He’s a hypocrite, isn’t he?” He’s not been straight at all,” came the 66-year-old’s reply. “I quite like him, though.”
A snap poll conducted on Tuesday night suggested more than half of voters think the prime minister should resign after he and chancellor Rishi Sunak were fined for attending a lockdown-breaking Downing Street birthday party. In Wakefield on Wednesday morning – where a real poll, a by-election, may soon be held – voters appeared in rather more forgiving mood.
“What he did was wrong, you can’t get round that,” said Leadbeater, a grandfather of two. “We all had to sacrifice a lot – it was a bloody hard two years – but you’re not telling me a prime minister should stand down just because he had a bit of birthday cake in between meetings?”
Didn’t Mr Johnson’s repeated denials that he broke the rules he himself set make it about more than just cake, though? Perhaps, came the reply between serving fruit salads and cola bottles. “But I don’t think anyone voted for Boris thinking he was completely straight – name me a politician who is.”
The words captured the over-riding consensus that emerged as The Independent canvassed voters in this West Yorkshire city, a one-time Labor heartland that voted blue for the first time in almost 87 years in 2019.
Boris was a liar, repeatedly came the verdict. Boris was a scoundrel. Boris believed, quite literally, it was one rule for him and one for the rest of us. But Boris was also Boris. And, well, people still rather liked him.
Even as Conservative MPs begin to call Mr Johnson’s position untenable, several voters here said he would probably still receive their backing at the next election. Which, as it happens, may not be too far away in Wakefield.
After the city’s ex-Tory MP Imran Ahmad Khan was this week convicted of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy in 2008, a by-election has become a distinct possibility here. It would make the city the first place ever to go to the polls with a serving prime minister known to have broken the law.
Yet the initial sense is that it may well still be Labor that – somehow – face the uphill struggle here.
“I don’t think what any of that [Mr Johnson’s rule-breaking] should be underplayed,” said Wahida Ahmed, a politics lecturer and mother of five. “It thanks me to think of him at his party. But he has been fined and he has apologised, and it’s time our politicians stopped spending so much time and energy on this.”
There was, she added, a cost of living crisis to deal with and a war in Europe on. “Why is Labor focusing on parties from almost two years ago?” the 41-year-old asked. “Why are they not putting forward a credible alternative for dealing with what’s happening in the real world? All that would happen if he [Mr Johnson] resigned now is we would have months of instability. That’s the last thing someone struggling with their energy bills needs.”
The point was echoed by Bea Firth, who runs the city’s Morgana and Hellraiser alternative clothes store. “I don’t know if there’s anyone better [to be PM] anyway,” she said. “I couldn’t bare another leadership race. We’ve had enough chaos. We need a period of calm.”
The apparent clemency for Mr Johnson here may have wider ramifications.
Wakefield suffered badly with Covid-19 – some 1,141 people had died here up to last month, a figure above the national average. If it is seen to forgive the prime ministerial law breaking in a by-election, it may signal that the rest of the country will do so too.
“He has spent his whole life getting out of problems which have been of his own making,” said Leo Haines, as he drank coffee in the city’s Ridings Shopping Centre. “And as far as I can see he has a talent for it. He will be found out eventually but whether that will be this time, I’m not so sure.”
He was, he said, a man with no allegiance to any political flag – but had voted for Mr Johnson in 2019.
Would he do so again? “Personally, probably not but I don’t feel any particular anger [over his lockdown parties],” the 58-year-old mused. “Maybe that would be different if I’d lost someone I loved.”
As it happened, his coffee companion, 82-year-old Anthony Slater, had lost someone: a beloved nephew, Vincent, taken before his time, he said, at 72.
“What do I think? [of Mr Johnson]?” I have considered. “I’ll spell it so I don’t say it: IDIOT.”
He had voted Labor all his life but had always respected the statesmanship of even his most disliked Conservative prime ministers. “Aye,” the retired builder nodded. “Even Margaret Thatcher.”
But Mr Johnson? “He’s no statesman,” the great-grandfather said. “It makes me wonder what it’s come to when the prime minister cane get a police fine and not stand down. It’s a national shame.”