To a visitor, Thetford seems a strangely dismembered town. Grandiose Victorian civic buildings next to boxy ’70s shopping streets, vast open public spaces beyond which crouch old fashioned council estates. It was designated for London overspill in the 1960s, and that first generation of Londoners have long since made it their home. A stall holder on the market loves them, “Real old Londoners still,” she calls them.These days 20% of the population is under 16, but once they grow much beyond that age, many of them want to be off. For the young, Thetford can seem a long way from anywhere.
It certainly seems a long way from Westminster, especially for Liz Truss. Even after 12 years, she and South West Norfolk still seems a strange marriage. Just after she had been drafted in as part of David Cameron’s attempt to modernise the Tory party, local members learned their candidate had been having an extra-marital affair with an MP. This was modernisation too far for them and they tried to deselect her. It blew over, even though there was disparagingly talk of the “Turnip Taliban”.
Liz truss, the absentee MP
Jobs are low wage, mostly agricultural or industrial. Incomers these days go there to retire. The British Trust for Ornithology moved its HQ to the town and brought their staff with them. Immediately there was a much stronger green presence, though within reason. A local Extinction Rebellion cadre found themselves out of step and changed their name to the more modest Thetford Environment Group.
Opinions about the MP in the town centre were vague. “Not a people person,” one man remarked, and others nodded. “Shark eyes” is one description which seems to be popular: blank, with nothing behind them. A common complaint though is the town seems to have gone downhill in recent years.
Truss has rarely opened fêtes or visited schools, or done any local schmoozing. There are grumbles she only shows up for photo ops with big farmers or big business, party donors. There is still resentment that she blagged her way into Remembrance Day parade in 2019 after the general election had been called, to appear patriotic, even though not entitled. Between elections, voters hear nothing from her. The house she bought when elected has for the last seven years been let to tenants, and she has no other presence.
Ten years difference in life expectancy from one end of town to the other
But people make little connection between the town’s problems and the government, or Brexit, or even Truss. (Except one man in Costa who declared how his daughter hates Truss and added: “It’s all gone downhill since 2016”.) They shrug: it’s just how it is. They can still be roused though, by mention of the event that won’t go away and will haunt the government into the next election: Partygate.
Terry Jermy was born in Thetford and has lived there all his life.
He is a member of Norfolk County, Breckland District and Thetford Town Councils. There is nothing about the town and very few of its people he doesn’t know. He loves Thetford and loves its people – or at least most of them. He extends a worldly benevolence to the rest. Health inequalities are a major concern, he tells me: between the Tesco end of the town with its four and five bedroom houses and the Sainsbury’s end there is a difference in life expectancy of 10 years.
“Our mental health trust is in special measures and is the worst in the UK. Adult social care in Norfolk is rated as the worst in the UK. Norfolk is in the top 5% of poor dentistry services. Then there is the controversy about the Queen Elizabeth Hospital (in Kings Lynn but which serves Thetford, where the roof is being held up by 1500 props). And what is Truss doing about it? Not a lot.
“We’re good at talking ourselves down in Thetford, which I find frustrating. But then when you’ve got a lot of people who are here not by choice and don’t have a good feeling about the town. If you don’t have a car in Thetford, your opportunities are incredibly limited.”
Liz Truss and the “survival of the thickest”
In the square a young busker was singing ‘Until the 12th of Never’, and whatever Thetford is waiting for from Truss it’s certainly taking a long long time. It is difficult to find any local project in which she has been actively involved. Her supporters point to the dualling of the A11, which everyone agrees has made a significant difference to this part of Norfolk. (Even though one of its effects has been to put up house prices.)
But those with long memories tell you most of the work was done by former MPs, like Charles Clarke. Truss arrived when most of the work was done, just in time for popping the champagne corks.
Local political observers don’t have a high regard for Truss. An EAB colleague, Mr Pecksniff, recently called the Tory leadership blood-letting “the survival of the thickest”, and that view is generally held by those in her backyard who know her. Politicians in opposition parties (and it’s rumoured a few Tories) as well as local journalists take the view that she is – and the exact phrasing varies a little – either ‘not very bright’ or just ‘dim’.