DAN HODGES: For voters, getting schools back is now as vital as Brexit

For Boris Johnson’s new working-class voters, getting schools back is now as vital as Brexit once was, says DAN HODGES – as he returns to the towns that rejected Labour in the Election

Former JCB driver Billy Brown feels Boris has let him down. ‘I thought I was voting for someone with balls,’ he tells me caustically. 

Billy voted Tory for the first time last December. But he thinks the Covid crisis has seen the Prime Minister lose his way.

‘Boris should have sacked that Cummings fella. Everyone round here’s been obeying the rules, and then this guy gets away with breaking them. I won’t forget, and neither will they.’

Round here is Trimdon Colliery, Sedgefield. I’m sitting in The Royal pub, a stone’s throw from Myrobella, Tony Blair’s house when he was Sedgefield’s MP. 

If Covid management has become the defining issue of the Johnson premiership, whether or not the schools reopen next month will define how the British people view his management of Covid

It was here in December that I watched as the BBC broadcast the exit poll that formally heralded the collapse of Labour’s Northern Red Wall. Though I didn’t really need to wait for it. 

‘It’ll go Tory here,’ one of the regulars informed me an hour in advance. It did.

But this evening, the mood is different. Alice (she didn’t want me to use her real name) is concerned about the effect immigration is having on the spread of coronavirus. 

‘We’re having to wear our masks. And then you see these people coming over the Channel.’

Billy’s wife Anne has worries closer to home. ‘My grandchild has been off school for four months. And my daughter’s been ringing me up every day asking for help. She’s got this chemistry question and I don’t know the answer. So I’ll get out the old encyclopaedia and see if we can find it. Sometimes we can. And sometimes we can’t.’

Behind Boris’s Blue Wall, coronavirus is making people feel scared and angry. But not completely abandoned. In Sam Zair’s Bishop Auckland cafe, regular customer Kevin is getting his tea poured into a Union Jack teacup from a Union Jack teapot. ‘That’s the way I like it,’ he tells me, ‘and it’s not a Union Jack, it’s a Union Flag.’

Sam, who is also a local independent councillor, admits things have been tough. ‘It’s been hard round here,’ he acknowledges, ‘very hard.’ But he thinks Boris and his Ministers are doing what they can. 

‘The Eat Out To Help Out scheme is definitely helping,’ he says, ‘but there’s a lot of paperwork.’

His face is a mask of concentration as he attempts to calculate the discount for my full English.

‘What we’re hoping for is it’ll attract some new custom. But I’ll be honest – I’m scared about what’s going to happen in a few weeks with this second wave.’

As I finish my breakfast, two or three more customers drift in. They all appear to be regulars.

Bishop Auckland was the Basildon of the 2019 Election. A key target marginal for the Tories, Dehenna Davison’s triumph by almost 8,000 votes brought an end to the Corbyn project. And if Keir Starmer is to succeed, he will need to wrestle seats like this back into the Labour fold.

But despite Covid-19, local barber Peter Granger is sticking with Boris. ‘Yes, you get a lot of people criticising. But think of what the guy’s dealing with. It’s like when Alex Ferguson left Man United. Everyone says, ‘Oh, the new bloke will just make it work.’ But it’s a lot harder than that.’

As he goes through the ritual of cleaning his scissors, Mr Granger agrees that Ministers have been doing their best for small businessmen such as him. But he’s also scared of what might be around the corner. 

The nation expects its children to go back to school. And his fulfilment of that pledge is now even more vital than his pledge to get Brexit done

‘If we have to lockdown again then I’m worried about what will happen. I’ve been here since 1985. This used to be a booming area. But we’ve lost so much. If we get a second wave, I’m not sure we’ll recover in my lifetime.’

He’s also angry at the way the Government is framing the new wave of local lockdowns. ‘Look at this Manchester thing. I hate the way people are saying people in the North are letting the virus spread. Manchester isn’t the North – we’re the North and we’re sticking to the rules. It’s not our fault. Look at what’s happening with some of those Asian communities.’

Standing on the main high street in Bishop Auckland, you can see people are indeed trying to stick to the rules. The dehumanising masks are far more prevalent than in London’s Soho, for example. 

But in towns and villages where a cheery ‘morning, luv’ was once a staple of everyday life, you see something else. As the summer clouds lower and the air thickens, Covid is slowly suffocating their communities to death.

Bolsover was once a Labour citadel, held for 49 years by legendary chieftain Dennis Skinner. But in December it fell to Conservative Mark Fletcher by more than 5,000 votes. As you drive in, you can see red warning signs stapled to every other lamp-post that read ‘Covid-19. Stay 2m apart.’ 

But they are redundant. The town centre is quiet. ‘You can understand what the Government is trying to do,’ local cabbie KG Soloman explains. ‘Trying to get everyone out there again. But no one’s spending now because they know it’s going to get harder later on.

Covid Britain now has its own drumbeat. One of them is called Dominic Cummings. It was especially noticeable in the North East, where his notorious dash to Barnard Castle occurred. But the ‘Cummings Effect’ is real

‘Everyone’s preparing for bad times, and if there’s a second wave it will be even worse.’

Someone who’s been experiencing harder times than most is shopkeeper Sharon Malia. If Covid has been a struggle for some, for her it’s become a Kafkaesque nightmare. A couple of weeks before the virus struck, her gift shop was burgled and her merchandise ransacked. 

The community rallied round in support, but then lockdown was imposed. She tried selling her gift cards from her house, but was told this was in breach of Covid regulations, and was reported to trading standards.

Then the schools closed, and she was forced to try to salvage her business while looking after her two children. She was finally told a place had been found to provide mentoring support for only one of them. 

‘Try telling a 15-year-old who’s been locked down all day that she’s got to go and pick up her 13-year-old brother from school. It’s a challenge,’ she tells me ruefully. But again, she does not direct anger towards Boris, but issues an appeal for help. ‘If Boris was standing here, I’d tell him two things,’ she says.

‘I know things might not be able to go back to normal but we need clarity on the rules. I was told I needed to get a plastic screen for my counter. But that will cost me £100 I just don’t have. Then I saw that my customers would have to wear masks, but I don’t. So do I need the screen or not?’ And the second thing? ‘Please, get the schools back next month.’

In most parts of the country, this appeal for a return to normality is a common refrain. But behind another significant section of Boris’s Blue Wall, a reintroduction of the status quo is being stubbornly resisted. 

In Cornwall, the predicted Lib Dem Swinson Surge failed to materialise at the Election, in no small part because of the stubborn independent streak among locals and antipathy towards a perceived attempt by the Establishment to overturn the Brexit referendum result.

But now that defiance is being directed at those from ‘up country’ who are seen to be flocking to the county for the summer holiday season, bringing the dreaded coronavirus with them.

I’d suspected talk of local anger at this influx of Typhoid Mikes and Marys was probably overhyped. Then I pulled into a tiny petrol station on the road between St Ives and Falmouth.

‘Thank you for wearing a mask,’ I was told by the cashier, an entreaty followed a second later by a pointed, ‘Do you not have a mask?’ to the man behind me.

As I returned to my car, I saw a third customer go scuttling back to her car to reclaim what in parts of Cornwall is now a mandatory piece of PPE. ‘We’re very concerned,’ mum Nicole Roberts told me on Camborne high street. 

‘The R rate’s jumped from 0.9 to 3.3 here. I think they should have set a 30-mile radius around the local pubs and restaurants and everything else, and said ‘locals only’.’

When I made this journey – from the North, through the Midlands, down to the South West – on the Election trail last December, I met hundreds of people, with a thousand different opinions. But one or two constant themes came through. I called it the Election drumbeat. And Covid Britain now has its own drumbeat.

One of them is called Dominic Cummings. It was especially noticeable in the North East, where his notorious dash to Barnard Castle occurred. But the ‘Cummings Effect’ is real.

His name was raised several times with me unprompted. And rightly or wrongly, he has damaged Boris and the Government. Another unprompted subject was the infamous second wave. 

I lost count of the number of people who told me this apocalypse was imminent, or asked me with trepidation whether I knew from ‘people in Westminster’ if it was about to strike.

It may well be that Ministers are hoping this spectre will cause us all to remain vigilant. In which case, they are succeeding beyond their wildest dreams.

But if their ambition really is to get Britain back to work, then they could hardly be doing more damage if they introduced a curfew and sent the Army on to the streets with orders to shoot on sight.

One other thing that stands out is the almost arbitrary and random nature of the measures being deployed in our supposedly national fight against coronavirus. In Durham, I went into a restaurant and had my head zapped with a temperature gun. 

In Bolsover, I walked into a pub and was simply asked what I wanted to drink. In Bishop Auckland, I encountered several requests to leave track-and-trace details. In a chippy in Sedgefield, my question ‘Do you want me to wear my mask’ was met with a look of bemusement that could not have been bettered if I’d proffered it in Martian. 

In a hotel in Camborne, I was asked if I had any Covid symptoms – but only after I’d settled my bill.

Which, in turn, may be playing a part in another phenomenon I detected. The mood of national unity so evident at the start of the crisis is now fracturing. It wasn’t just Cornwall where I was told: ‘We’re OK, we’re playing by the rules here. But look at x. If we get locked down again it will be their fault.’ The whack-a-mole strategy may be preferable to another full national shutdown. But it’s also pitting town against town, region against region, and community against community.

Also significant were the drumbeats I didn’t hear. Faith in Boris and the Government has been shaken to a degree. But no one I spoke to pointed the finger of blame at him for the crisis itself. 

Liberal Britain may spend every day poring over mortality tables and international fatality comparisons. But in the areas I travelled to, the focus was on the practicalities of moving the country forward, not counting the dead.

Another notable absence was any reference to the B-word – Brexit. Back in December, it was the prism through which all political debate was channelled. 

‘We’ve got to get Brexit done,’ was a mantra I had fired at me again and again. But this time it was hardly mentioned. Britain believes Boris really has got Brexit done.

Last year, as I travelled the country, it quickly became clear Labour’s Red Wall was crumbling. This morning – despite the onslaught of Covid – Boris’s Blue Wall remains broadly intact. But cracks are appearing

Which means Brexit will no longer provide the cement to will keep his Blue Wall intact.

Something else he can’t rely on is antipathy towards the leader of the Labour Party. No one mentioned Keir Starmer unless I brought up his name. 

And when I did, most people knew very little about who he was. But they knew who he wasn’t. ‘At least he’s not Corbyn,’ I was told on several occasions.

But on my tour of Covid Britain there was a specific drumbeat – one single issue – that reverberated again and again. 

In Durham, in St Ives, in Bolsover, in Bishop Auckland, in Trimdon, I heard the same instruction. It came from fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, grandmothers, grandparents. Or what working Britain has now anointed as its unofficial army of auxiliary teachers. ‘Boris has to reopen the schools.’

If Covid management has become the defining issue of the Johnson premiership, whether or not the schools reopen next month will define how the British people view his management of Covid. He has promised the nation its children will go back to school.

The nation expects its children to go back to school. And his fulfilment of that pledge is now even more vital than his pledge to get Brexit done.

Last year, as I travelled the country, it quickly became clear Labour’s Red Wall was crumbling. This morning – despite the onslaught of Covid – Boris’s Blue Wall remains broadly intact.

But cracks are appearing. And in the coming weeks and months they will need to be shored up. Because if they’re not, Boris, his party and his country will all disappear beneath the rubble.

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