When Boris Johnson was looking for a constituency to be parachuted into at the end of his tenure as London mayor, the west London seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip suited him very nicely.
The well-to-do town at the end of the Metropolitan line was widely regarded as true blue territory and it wasn’t too far from either Westminster or Islington where he lived at the time. But as Johnson prepares to become prime minister, concerns are mounting in the party that he might not actually be a shoo-in to hold the seat at the next general election.
That poll could come sooner than anticipated if he presses ahead with a no-deal Brexit against the wishes of most MPs. Speculation is swirling in Westminster of a no confidence motion being tabled within weeks of him taking office, or Johnson calling an election himself in the autumn amid deadlock in parliament.
Meanwhile rival parties in Uxbridge are circling. Momentum, the pro-Jeremy Corbyn campaign group, is holding an “Unseat Boris” event in the town on Sunday, where hundreds of activists are expected to knock on doors for the Labour candidate, Ali Milani. Labour is confident it can win over enough disgruntled voters to wrestle the seat away from Johnson, not least because his majority was halved at the last snap election in 2017.
He won a majority of 5,034 votes over Labour then, less than half of the 10,695 he had in his first election two years earlier. While his vote share remained steady at just over 50%, Labour took votes from UKIP and the Liberal Democrats to get far closer than local Tories expected.
Of course Johnson has the advantage of being not just the likely next prime minister but a celebrity as well; he has that intangible X factor that would-be MPs crave. But he is in increasing danger of being squeezed from all sides: by Brexiteers demanding the positive clean break from the European Union that he has promised, by Remainers – including thousands of students in the constituency – worried about the damage his Brexit plans could cause, and by fed-up locals who are sick of Brexit and politics in general and think he is taking the seat for granted.
It would be the first time a sitting prime minister has ever lost his seat (the closest scenario is Tory PM Arthur Balfour who resigned in 1905, two months before a general election saw him booted out of parliament, although he returned within weeks via a by-election). BuzzFeed News went to Uxbridge to meet key players and local residents on the ground to examine how likely it is for Johnson’s rivals to make history.
The end result depends on a complex web of factors: increasing numbers of young voters in the area, the perception among residents that Johnson is never in his constituency, the positions of candidates on local issues especially Heathrow, whether a general election would be held in term time so students can vote, and not least what Johnson does on Brexit. The volatility of modern politics means anything is possible.
Uxbridge is an affluent commuter town, just 20 miles from central London. On a bright weekday morning, the town centre has a lively, purposeful vibe; full of people heading in and out of the two big shopping centres, walking to work, buying flowers from the stall outside the underground station, and sitting on benches soaking up the sunshine.
The constituency is not just Uxbridge itself, of course. It stretches up north towards the Tory heartlands of leafy Buckinghamshire, taking in RAF Northolt in the north east, and through less affluent areas in the south to border shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s territory of Hayes and Harlington.
In the town centre, Pat Ewings, 63, rolls his eyes when asked about Johnson. "Boris might be our MP but he’s never here," he says. "I’m sick of politicians in general, they’re all liars. I wouldn’t vote for Labour because of Corbyn. I’d back the Brexit Party if it would mean getting rid of who we’ve got in parliament at the moment. That’s the only way these people will learn."
A cab driver in the nearby rank, who declines to give his name, says he’s "no fan" of Johnson: "He’s nowhere to be seen round here. He shows up for the odd event. I very nearly went up to him last time he was here to say something, but I managed to hold myself back." Who would he vote for? “I'd probably vote Conservative, but I’m no fan of his."
This is what the local Tory party is counting on. When the next general election comes, they are expecting Conservative Central Office to swoop in and “throw everything at it” – but they will push back against a centralised Johnson-focused campaign, preferring to point to local achievements: a new swimming pool, refurbished libraries, frozen council tax and weekly bin collections.
The Brexit Party, led by Nigel Farage, would throw a major spanner in the works if it decides to stand here. The constituency voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum by an estimated 57%, according to the House of Commons library, and the Brexit Party easily won the 2019 European Parliament election in the seat, according to data estimates from Chris Hanretty, a politics professor at Royal Holloway.
If the party stood, it would undoubtedly split the Tory vote two ways, allowing Labour to come through the middle. ("If they do, then goodbye Boris," Milani tells us). But it is not clear yet whether the party will field a candidate here, as everything hinges on what Johnson does on Brexit.
"If there was an election tomorrow, we would contest every single seat," a Brexit Party source tells us. "If we’ve left the EU, then we’ll have to see. But do we trust Boris to deliver Brexit by October 31? Does anybody?"
Labour’s position on Brexit has been rather more complicated and while it has taken a more pro-Remain stance in recent weeks, there is a risk that the party’s lingering equivocation will turn off diehard Remain voters. But the party is not making Brexit the central issue of its campaign – instead it aims to contrast the local, working class credentials of its candidate with the Eton-educated, career-focused Johnson.
Johnson has been MP for Uxbridge since 2015, returning to the Commons seven years after he left his Henley seat in pursuit of the mayoralty. His predecessor John Randall, who held the seat for 18 years and is now a Tory peer, has been a hard act to follow.
Born and bred in Uxbridge, Randall was a well-known and respected local figure, not least because his family owned the town's big department store, Randalls of Uxbridge, for more than 120 years. When he was out canvassing, he used to knock on doors only to be greeted with: "Oh it’s you, I’ve got your furniture here, do you want to see?"
Johnson has been a far less visible presence. Local Tory sources had hoped that his celebrity status would substantially boost the size of the local association, but this has not come to pass. Colleagues in the area knew that he was never going to move to the area (he already had a house in Islington and a country home in Thame, Oxfordshire) – and they understood the demands on his time as foreign secretary between 2016 and 2018 – but they would still like to see more of him.
That’s not to say he never visits. Johnson was at the Uxbridge Conservative association summer drinks in June and he does pop into schools and local businesses when he finds the time. But he is certainly not knocking on doors as much as Randall.
Unlike many MPs, Johnson does not have his own office in the constituency. When he does visit, he uses Hillingdon Civic Centre or the local Conservative HQ on Harefield Road as a base. Constituents who want to see him are asked to contact his House of Commons office and book an appointment.
His Liberal Democrat rival Dr Elizabeth Evenden-Kenyon tells us there is an average wait of nine months to see Johnson. "You have to get in touch and actively track him down and bug and bug and bug," she says. "I’ve had stacks of people saying 'I’m pretty bolshy and I’ve pushed for an appointment', but what about people who can’t push?"
Sources close to Johnson strenuously deny there is a nine-month wait and insist that urgent cases are prioritised. But a spokesperson declined to say exactly how often he holds constituency surgeries.
"He only comes round for the photo ops, he’s very good at that," Milani says. "I say to people, do you think if I dropped Boris at the end of the road, he would find his way home? He wouldn’t know where he is."
Labour is determined to make the most of Johnson’s perceived absence. In Milani, the party has selected a 24-year-old immigrant from Iran who grew up in an Uxbridge council house and attended the town's Brunel University, where he was student union president before becoming vice president of the National Union of Students.
He believes his background is going down well on the doorstep. "Traditional voters here have a history of a good local MP," Milani says. "I’m a local candidate – I just live down the road, I went to uni here. It cuts through. I say to people 'If I was to fall down and break my leg today which hospital would I go to? Hillingdon. Ask the other candidates which hospital they’d go to.'"
Milani is also determined to harness the youth vote. "There’s no-one who can turn out student votes like I can," he says. "My vision has always been we can do here what students in Sheffield did to Nick Clegg." He is planning a big student voter registration drive at Brunel in September and says a general election in term time, when students will vote here rather than at home, would be a big boost to Labour.
Johnson is among a number of senior Tory MPs in marginal seats being targeted in Momentum’s "Unseat" campaign, amid speculation that the Brexit crisis could spark an election within months (both Milani and Evenden-Kenyon believe it will take place this autumn).
Also in the group’s sights are Iain Duncan Smith, who has a 2,438 majority in Chingford and Woodford Green in north London, Grant Shapps, with a 7,369 majority in Welwyn Hatfield in Hertfordshire, and Amber Rudd who has a wafer-thin majority of just 346 in Hastings and Rye, East Sussex.
Tories are outwardly putting a brave face on this, with one MP telling BuzzFeed News that the Conservatives have actually had better than expected local election results in areas where Momentum have held rallies – because it reminds voters why it is so important to turn out and vote to "make sure Labour is not elected".
But Milani is confident that Labour can beat Johnson, whether the Brexit Party stands or not. "I think we can beat him one on one, genuinely," he says. "People feel powerless – there’s a small group of Tory members who will make him PM – and we’re saying no you’re not powerless, we can unseat him here, this is all the power in the world."
Momentum is also quick to point to research which they say proves there are growing numbers of young voters in Uxbridge who are more likely to vote Labour.
The data is in a report from Tory renewal think tank Onward earlier this year. It measured the ratios of younger (aged 20-39) to older residents (60 plus) by constituency and found that a seat is likely to be won by a party other than the Conservatives if the ratio rises above 1:1.
The report said 242 seats currently meet that criteria, of which 54 are held by the Tories – and some, including Uxbridge, had ratios that were "far higher than the tipping point, suggesting they are vulnerable if age continues to be a predictor of vote intention".
Latest figures from the House of Commons library show that over 33% of the constituency’s population is between the ages of 20 and 39, compared to just 17% over 60. Housing developers are racing to build more apartments in the area, as sky-high prices in London push the under-40s out into the suburbs.
The seat has also become more ethnically diverse in recent years, according to Labour. Data from the 2011 census, the latest available, shows the local population was 70% white, 18% Asian and 6% black.
Momentum hope to capitalise on this, not only because black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) communities historically vote Labour, but because Johnson has repeatedly been forced to apologise for his use of language about Muslim and black people. One local Tory insider admitted Johnson’s past remarks could be a challenge with BAME voters on the doorstep.
Yet Milani has faced his own controversy over racist language. He has been exposed for a string of anti-Semitic tweets posted between 2011 and 2013, including the message "Nah u won’t mate it will cost you a pound #jew".
"I was a teenager," he says. "I unreservedly apologise and I will continue to do so as long as people ask me about it. I’m deeply embarrassed about it." He insists he has been working with Jewish communities to get "more anti-racist education" in schools and universities. Would that have helped him? "Of course – the language that we used, we had no idea of the context," he says. "We thought it was banter. The same way kids call each other gay in the playground, not realising the harm that does to people."
Despite his apologies, many in the Labour party are disappointed that Milani won the selection given the anti-Semitism row engulfing the opposition. Critics say it proves that Corbyn’s office is dismissing the problem. Does Milani believe the party is doing enough to combat racism? "As long as Jewish people are saying we need to do more, we need to do more," he says.
Milani says he himself has been the target of Islamophobic racism, with emails sent to him warning that his family are at risk. He has also received "threatening" handwritten letters, posted with no stamp straight through his door. "We’ve told the police," he says. "It's such a small minority, I’m not worried. For me it tells you the state politics is in.
"Since Boris has injected racism into the mainstream discourse of politics, when a young brown Muslim is standing against him, you’re going to get it … People are struggling to make ends meet and someone has provided them with an easy answer and said it’s all these immigrants coming here."
But Evenden-Kenyon, the Lib Dem candidate, says bluntly that Milani is not doing enough to bring the community together. "He’s not in it for everybody," she says. "He is doing zero to tackle anti-Semitism, zero on xenophobia, zero on anything other than Islamophobia."
Evenden-Kenyon is an academic who is researching propaganda in the media and was at Brunel as a lecturer at the same time as Milani, although she says she didn’t teach him personally. There is no love lost between the pair. Milani is quick to shut down conversation about the Lib Dems: "What they will do is just beg for attention but there’s no hope here. I’m not worried about them."
Local Conservatives believe it is virtually impossible for the Lib Dems to mount a comeback, given their collapse in the borough in recent years. They have no councillors on Hillingdon Council and in fact only fielded two candidates in the constituency’s eight wards in last year’s local elections, winning less than 600 votes between them. “It’s hard to rebuild infrastructure out of nothing,” says one Tory source.
Evenden-Kenyon says she is keen for a pact with the Green party, just as there is in the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election, to give voters a Remain alliance candidate. But it is highly unlikely this would be enough to see off Johnson, unless Labour is involved; in 2017 the Lib Dems and the Greens won less than 6% of the Uxbridge vote between them.
If the opposition does stay divided, local Conservatives say that a swell of support from Remain voters towards the Lib Dems could actually help Johnson as it pulls votes away from Labour.
Evenden-Kenyon is keen to focus on local issues and wants to challenge Johnson over Heathrow – just five miles from Uxbridge – and his failure to vote against the third runway when he had a chance. (The then foreign secretary suddenly had an urgent meeting in Afghanistan which cost taxpayers £20,000).
When he was elected in Uxbridge, Johnson said he would lie down "in front of those bulldozers" to stop the expansion of Heathrow – but he has been notably quiet on the issue since entering the race for Number 10, despite much local concern over pollution, traffic, noise and the value of constituents' homes.
Conservatives know this will cause him problems at the election, with fellow London Tories such as Greg Hands and Justine Greening likely to put him on the spot, and he will need to have a stronger line. There is consternation locally that he has announced a review into HS2 but not into Heathrow.
Meanwhile, Milani is looking forward to signing up students at Brunel's freshers fair. "They’re certainly not going to vote Lib Dem," he smiles. "I've got £56,000 of debt that’s their fault. When they fix that, they can come back and ask for my vote."
He says that far from being apathetic, students will vote when you give them a reason to. The Tories have miscalculated the mounting fury from younger generations, he says, over climate change, university maintenance grants and mental health. "I look at what's happening with AOC [US Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and think the UK needs a wave coming through,” he says.
“The way to truly disrupt the establishment is for people like us to stand. We need to take politics by the scruff of the neck and take it where we want to take it. We’re not going to be passers-by any more. People were shocked at how many young people voted in 2017, they’re going to get a serious surprise at the next election.”
BuzzFeed News contacted a number of local Conservative councillors to ask about Johnson’s activity in the seat but all of them declined to comment or failed to respond. Randall also declined to comment because of his role as an adviser to outgoing PM Theresa May.
Tory MP Chris Heaton-Harris, who is supporting Johnson in the leadership race, told us: "Boris is well embedded in his seat. He is a good constituency MP and campaigns hard on local issues. Local residents of Uxbridge will know he is always available to help them and is on their side."
Emily Ashton is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Emily Ashton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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