On the steps outside Birmingham Town Hall, lift engineers Tom Norton, Kevin Haynes and Mohammed Iqbal sat eating packed lunches a couple of hundred yards from where the Conservative Party conference was taking place.
“What was that about?” demanded 44-year-old Haynes of prime minister Liz Truss’s now aborted attempt to abolish the top rate of tax. “Sticking two fingers up at ordinary people to help the rich. Call a general election and let’s see what people think about it.”
As the annual Tory gathering continued at the International Convention Centre on Tuesday, the mood on the streets and squares around the secure zone may well have been more instructive than anything going on inside: contempt and anger at the government was everywhere.
To speak to people here in Britain’s second city was to come to the conclusion that last week’s bombshell polls giving Labour an average 23-point lead was, if anything, a little, well, conservative.
“We all know the Tories are there to look after the rich,” said Norton, 38. “But bloody hell, at least try and disguise it a bit. Everyone I know is working their hardest to survive and they’re telling millionaires, ‘here, you don’t have enough money, have some more’. It was just wrong.”
A nod from Iqbal. “If they couldn’t see that before they announced it, what does that say about them?” the 21-year-old asked quietly.
Andy Street, Conservative mayor of the West Midlands, was bounding through the city, surrounded by five or six minders while clutching a large cup of coffee when The Independent spotted him.
Had Liz Truss made his job harder?
“What a cheeky question,” he called back without breaking step. “We’re concentrating on investment here.”
If it was not what you might call a ringing endorsement of his party’s prime minister, it was – by some distance – the politest reply The Independent received today.
That Birmingham city centre should appear unimpressed by the new premier and her government probably isn’t a massive surprise.
The constituency in which it sits – Birmingham Ladywood – voted almost 80 per cent for Labour in 2019. The seat – where 47 per cent of children grow up in relative poverty – has not had a Tory representative since the Second World War. All the same, the strength of feeling on Tuesday felt especially vitriolic. Eighty per cent appeared to be a figure that could be dwarfed if an election was held tomorrow.
“I don’t have any [political] allegiance at all,” said Norton, a father of two. “I vote as I see it at the time but the country’s desperate for a change, and I don’t think she [Truss] is it at all.”
At the nearby Bull Ring Open Market, Maxine Harris – owner of Harris Eggs and Cheese – was similarly uninspired by the current government. And not just because traffic rerouting for the conference had made her journey home harder this week.
“The cost of living crisis is absolutely terrifying people,” the 46-year-old said. “People are telling us they can’t afford basics – like eggs – any more. And I’m no politician but I don’t see how the answer to that is to start cutting tax for the richest. I’m pretty sure they can afford all the eggs they want either way.”
She was, she said, a fair-minded sort (“all Brummies are”) and she felt any prime minister would struggle right now.
“This must be the hardest time for a leader since the Second World War,” she said. “Brexit, the pandemic, and now a war. A war! It’s been one crisis after another for years. I can’t remember what ‘normal’ feels like. Anyone would struggle with all that.”
And yet: an unambiguous frown when Ms Truss was mentioned. “Let’s say I’m not filled with confidence,” she said.
Would she like a general election? In theory, yes. A new prime minister with a seemingly new manifesto should really get a new mandate, reckoned Harris. But in practice? Another grimace: “the thought of having to go through six weeks of that…” she shuddered.
Someone else not filled with confidence was David Miller, manager at the city’s much-loved Whisky Shop in the Great Western Arcade.
“When the leadership race was going on this summer, she was one of two [candidates] I thought would be a disaster,” he said. “But I don’t think I thought anyone could be this bad.”
As interest rates shot up following the government’s mini-Budget last month, Miller calculated how much his mortgage would cost him if his fixed term had been due to come to an end shortly.
“Not quite double,” the 43-year-old declared. “But not far off. So, how could I afford that? I’d effectively be in need of a job that paid £5,000 a year more.”
For him, it was, to some extent, an academic question. He is on a fixed-rate term with four more years to run. “But for some people to be going through that anxiety now because of what is basically government stupidity is awful,” he said. “They have caused so much mental torture – and they seem to have no understanding of that.”
He had seen Jake Berry’s interview on Sky News on Sunday in which the Tory party chair had suggested people facing financial hardship should get better-paid jobs. “They have no comprehension of what it’s like to struggle,” he said. “No empathy.”
For Kath Hartley, the mood in the city outside the conference came as a surprise.
She’s one of two ward councillors here, both Labour.
“It’s a red area,” she admitted. “But right now, whether it’s struggling to make ends meet because of the cost of living crisis, fears of more cuts to vital services or even broken promises on removing dangerous cladding – I don’t think I’ve ever known of such anger at a government. The only question now, really, is how long they struggle on before putting us all out of our misery and calling an election.”
For now, that seems unlikely, of course.
Governments trailing by double digits in polls don’t tend to go to the country. Yet, even so, the mood for change, somehow, has the air of permanency to it.
Sat waiting for a table outside Nando’s, Zoe Bevan declared she had voted only once in her life – but couldn’t wait to get to the ballot box next time round.
“No one voted for her [Truss] and I don’t think anyone wants her,” the 42-year-old children’s home team leader said. “It’s time for a fresh start.”