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‘I never knew why he was a Tory’: Bury South reacts to Christian Wakeford’s defection



Andrea Simpson, the first deputy of Bury’s Labour-led council, has just come out of a morning-long work meeting and has not heard the news.

Forty minutes earlier, Christian Wakeford, the Conservative MP for Bury South, stunned the House of Commons when he defected to the reds.

The 37-year-old former insurance broker, who has a wafer thin 402 majority, announced he was shifting sides after coming to the conclusion that Boris Johnson was “incapable of offering the leadership and government” the UK deserves.

“You what?” exclaims Simpson when she’s told. “Are you joking me? You’ve got to be kidding? I can’t believe it. Although… I can. It surprises me and it doesn’t surprise me. Christian seems like such a decent person. He has a real social conscience about him, and he’s always worked extremely well with the council. I have always looked at him and thought: ‘what are you doing in the Tories anyway?’ I never knew why he was one, really.”

A moment to take it all in. “So, we’re a Labour seat again?” she muses. “I’m all excited.”

While defections inevitably divide opinion – how does a Tory suddenly become a socialist anyway? – this particular move seems to have already been met with some welcome in the Greater Manchester constituency.

While the place isn’t quite dyed-in-the-wool red wall territory, it hadn’t voted Tory for 27 years until 2019. Now, as fury grows with Mr Johnson’s rule-breaking, the place had already begun to feel like a red seat in waiting once again. Wakeford’s shift across the political divide appears to merely pre-empt that.

“I think a lot of people will see what the current government are doing and have changed their perceptions of what the Conservative Party actually is over the last 12 months, and I think Christian has probably done that too,” says Gareth Staples-Jones, an independent ward councillor and school governor in the area. “He’s a pretty stand-up guy, to be honest, very down-to-earth; and I think if you have any sense of morality, you don’t want to be associated with this government and how it’s behaved over the last couple of months – the rule-breaking, the lies, all that.

“So, I think when you have a lot [of Conservatives] standing by [Boris Johnson], it’s just completely void with what the country is thinking. And Christian making this change probably reflects that he understands that.”

Andrea Simpson, first deputy of Bury’s Labour-led council, says she’s surprised – and not surprised – at the move

(Andrea Simpson)

It is a view echoed by Tina Harrison, who runs the Trinity Food Bank in Radcliffe, one of the constituency’s towns.

“We have a Whatsapp group for various community organisations called Growing Together Radcliffe,” she says. “We try and keep it avowedly non-political but it’s been hot with politics today. It’s created quite the buzz.”

There is a sense, she reckons, that Wakeford’s experience of dealing with the hardships caused by Covid-19 in the area may have become irreconcilable with certain Tory policies he had to stand by, such as the refusal to extend free school meals over the holidays.

“He has done a lot of work with us and other groups and I’ve always felt his eyes were being opened to the deprivation he was seeing, which he perhaps hadn’t experienced before becoming an MP,” she says.

Then, on top of that, came the PM’s parties. “Exactly,” says the 63-year-old. “He goes from visiting food banks and doing estate visits – getting quite involved actually – to having to defend a prime minister who is doing these tremendously wrong things, and I don’t think you’d be quite human if that didn’t rankle.”

A pause. “Although I stress again, we’re not political.”

Will she vote for Wakeford next time? That she won’t say.

Might he simply have seen the way the wind was blowing here and changed sides to save his job? “Well, yes, that’s the question that, I suppose, voters will need to answer [at the next election].”

Which perhaps brings us to local Conservatives here. “We’ve been told to put the phone down on the press,” says Jackie Harris, the council’s shadow cabinet member for transport and highways. “Well, I’m not so rude that I’m going to do that but I can’t comment, I’m afraid. I will say we’re disappointed, very disappointed.”

Is it Mr Johnson’s fault? “I won’t be drawn,” comes the firm answer.

Tina Harrison, who runs the Trinity Food Bank in Radcliffe, thinks that Wakeford’s experience as an MP in the area may have become irreconcilable with certain Tory policies

(Tina Harrison)

Either way, for Wakeford himself, crossing the house may have been the easy bit. Winning over all his new Labour peers may be harder. His voting record over the last two years doesn’t exactly scream socoialist, after all. He was in favour of both the £20 universal credit cut and the highly controversial police and crime bill. Ironically enough, he also co-sponsored a bill mandating by-elections for MPs who change party affiliation mid-term.

Yet Charlotte Morris, Bury Council’s cabinet member for culture and the economy, feels the party’s newest MP should be given a chance.

“If you’re a Labour activist, member, councillor or MP, your whole reason for being in the party should be to persuade people to join the cause,” she says. “I’d be the first to criticise his voting record but, if he’s been on a political journey, the proof of the pudding is what he does from now on.”



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