PM faces first test at ballot box as Chester voters prepare to have their say

Politics

Aboard the Lady Diana, a tourist river cruise through Chester, there is little talk of the upcoming by-election: “We don’t do politics here”, captain Paul Blessing tells me, chuckling. 

But dig a little deeper, and you will find strong views on everything from shops closing to sewage in the River Dee, queues at A&E and the cost of living – not to mention Tory turmoil in Westminster.

“I was a Boris fan,” Mr Blessing says, “but I’m completely put off at the moment. I hope the new PM brings trust back to people”.

Currently a Labour constituency, the Conservatives last held Chester under David Cameron. Since then, it has gone from being a super marginal seat to a place that bucked the national swing to the Tories at the last election.

Paul Blessing is the captain of the Lady Diana tourist river cruise in Chester
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Paul Blessing is the captain of the Lady Diana tourist river cruise in Chester

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Unlike in the so-called “red wall”, Boris Johnson’s brand of Conservatism did not seem to resonate with voters here. Almost everyone we ask on the high street says they are happier now Rishi Sunak is in charge.

One shopper tells me: “He just makes a lot more sense.” But that does not mean they are necessarily voting Tory.

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Robert Foulkes, a Roman centurion impersonator at Deva Roman Discovery Centre, says “people feel disenfranchised” by the rate of change in Westminster, and he thinks concerns outside London “aren’t being heard”.

Mr Foulkes depends on tourism for his livelihood, which means the situation on the high street worries him.

“What I want from both parties is more about investment into the city, making business rates cheaper and more affordable. We just want to have our opinions taken seriously,” he tells me.

Very few people we speak to recognise any of the local by-election candidates. They may be voting on local issues, but national politics drive their decisions.

 ALI FORTESCUE Chester election preview
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Robert Foulkes is a Roman centurion impersonator in Chester

The background to this by-election is, however, uncomfortable for Labour too. Their last MP, Chris Matheson, resigned after allegations of sexual misconduct were upheld by the parliamentary watchdog. A disappointing night for the party would likely be blamed on that context – this is not a traditional Labour stronghold by any stretch of the definition.

Chester is a historically Conservative, affluent corner of England, just two miles from Wales. The Tories took neighbouring Wrexham in 2019 for the first time since 1935, but some see Chester, which sits within the Liverpool commuter belt, as being within more within the sphere of influence of Merseyside. Labour held onto their 14 seats in Merseyside at the last election.

Mike Peters, who hosts the Breakfast Show on Chester’s Dee Radio, says: “It’s a city with a modern outlook that’s trying to change, and we want to see investment in the city”. He says he wants a “commitment to levelling up and better connections with the rest of the country.”

Mike Peters is a DJ from Radio Dee in Chester
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Mike Peters is a DJ from Chester’s Dee Radio

Part of the reason this by-election is so interesting is that it is Mr Sunak’s first as prime minister. Whilst a Tory win in Chester is unlikely – partly because governing parties rarely do well in by-elections – the result could yield clues about his progress with the public.

If there is a narrow path to a Conservative victory in the upcoming general election, Rishi Sunak needs to show his message is cutting through – and turning around some of the bleak polling for his party. The size of any Labour victory in Chester matters for both major parties.

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