It’s a daunting task. Since the 1980s, when the north rose up against Margaret Thatcher, the Tories have largely been considered unelectable in the region. But Brexit has muddled the situation. After decades of deindustrialization and globalization, residents of the former coal-mining region voted by a large majority to exit the EU and many are angry that it hasn’t yet happened. According to Onward, a center-right British think tank, this could play into Johnson’s hands.
It claims the Tories need to work hard to attract northern, middle-aged white men without college degrees who live in the countryside or in so-called “rugby league” towns, struggle financially and are disappointed by Labour’s undecided position on Brexit. Onward has named this type of voter “Workington Man,” after a former coal-mining city. “Wigan Woman” would be just as apt.
Once it became clear these voters would be decisive, the Tories began performing strange political contortions. Johnson and his allies are flattering and seducing the very people whose lives they have made miserable over the past decade, with promises of millions in spending. And in a crazy turn of events, even for these crazy times, the strategy could work.
In late November, a train ride through northern England was like a journey through a sinking country. In some areas near Manchester and Sheffield, as much rain recently fell in one hour as normally falls in an entire month. Well over a thousand homes were evacuated and, in some places, the water was neck high. Boris Johnson even showed up for look around in rubber boots — after having spent days telling journalists that the situation wasn’t all that drastic. In Stainforth, a woman pushing a wheelbarrow halfway politely declined a conversation with the prime minister. She had better things to do.