The Liberal Democrats have already begun campaigning for the Tiverton and Honiton byelection before its date has even been set, Ed Davey has said, calling his party “an anti-Tory campaigning machine” which is key to removing Boris Johnson from power.
Peter Walker www.theguardian.com
Winning the Devon seat vacated by the long-serving Tory Neil Parish, who resigned for watching pornography in the Commons, would be another huge coup for the Lib Dems.
Davey said that, while taking the seat would be a huge task, the Lib Dems’ success in last year’s North Shropshire byelection – another rural seat formerly held by a disgraced Tory – showed it was possible.
A further boost came in the local elections where, among the near-200 seats gained by the Lib Dems, they took control of Somerset council from the Conservatives, indicating the party is making a resurgence in its former stronghold of south-west England.
At the next general election, Davey said, the fact that his party was competitive in Conservative-held areas, many in the so-called blue wall of commuter belt seats, meant they would be at the centre of any electoral path which saw Johnson lose office.
“I can’t remember a time when the Liberal Democrats were more important to getting the Tories out of power,” he said. “We’re on the march. We are scaling that blue wall. My sense is we’ve got real momentum now.”
He added: “In the seats where we have a good chance of winning next time, they’re almost all held by the Tories. We are becoming an anti-Tory campaigning machine.”
Tiverton and Honiton will be another major test. While the wins in North Shropshire and, earlier in 2021, Chesham and Amersham, have made the Lib Dems the immediate bookmakers’ favourites, they came a distant third in the seat in the last two general elections.
Lib Dem activists are already in the constituency, knocking on doors, with Davey likely to join them this week. Campaigning will focus on ultra-local issues such as ambulance waiting times and GP numbers.
“We’re definitely the challengers,” Davey said. “And after North Shropshire we’ve proved that in these sorts of rural communities we’re the ones people will turn to.”
“But it’s a bigger mountain than North Shropshire, actually. It’s a tougher gig. We’ve got the Somerset result on our side, so we’re going to give it a good fight. But the Tories will know that we’re on their case,” he added.
One advantage for Davey could be if, as he mooted last week, Parish stands as an independent candidate, thus splitting any Tory vote.
An arguably even greater factor is the unspoken decision by Labour to most likely devote minimal resources to Tiverton, instead focusing on the Wakefield byelection, which comes after the Tory MP Imran Ahmad Khan was convicted of sexual assault.
Davey dismisses the idea of a pact between his party and Labour, a theory already raised by the Conservatives.
“It’s what I call rational behaviour. You don’t throw money or resources into seats where you’ve not got much chance of winning,” he said.
“I certainly think that voters are very focused on getting rid of the Tories. They can just read the numbers. Increasingly, you knock on the doors of people who would otherwise vote Labour or Green and they’re saying, ‘Yes, of course we’re going to vote for you.’”
The Lib Dems are also seeing increasing numbers of more liberal Conservatives turn to them, something Davey acknowledges comes from both his party’s efforts and, more significantly, an increasing distaste for Johnson after the mass of fines for illegal parties in Downing Street.
“If I was the Tories, this is what I’d be most worried about,” Davey said. “The voters have just woken up. In North Shropshire and Somerset they didn’t need persuading. And I don’t think in Devon they’ll need persuading. They know that to get rid of the Tories, you get behind the Liberal Democrats.”
Many such people, Davey says, are “embarrassed” to have Johnson as PM: “They’re patriots and they want their prime minister to be someone they can respect.
“I’ve respected prime ministers of all political persuasions. I might disagree with them, but I didn’t think they were putting their own personal and party interest, always and everywhere, above the national interest. I think we have a prime minister who doesn’t care about the national interest. I think people are seeing through that, and they don’t like it.”