Friday report: Tories face tough test as they try to hang on to Tiverton and Honiton seat

Still no reported sighting of “Big Dog” – Owl

While it remains perfectly possible the Conservatives could retain the ultra-safe seat of Tiverton and Honiton this month, it would have given Boris Johnson cause for concern if he had been able to listen to Colin Richey’s discussion with a Lib Dem canvasser on Thursday lunchtime.

Peter Walker 

A self-described lifelong Conservative – “I’m a Tory, my father was a Tory, and I believe in rightwing stuff” – the retired journalist began the chat on the doorstep of his neat semi-detached house on the outskirts of Tiverton adamant nothing could change his mind.

Just 10 minutes later, the 87-year-old had conceded to Eleanor Rylance, a councillor from east Devon, that he did not think Johnson would lead the Tories into the next election – and he actually preferred Jeremy Hunt. Furthermore, the Lib Dems’ candidate for the 23 June byelection was more impressive than their Tory counterpart, and even his cleaner was trying to persuade him to switch votes.

“Maybe I can be convinced,” Richey said eventually. “I suppose I’m still thinking about it.”

Johnson was visiting the constituency on Friday afternoon but no details of his visit were made public in advance. The first confirmation that he was actually in Devon was a tweet from a National Farmers Union official that said Johnson had been there discussing food security.

Losing the constituency in one of the two byelections taking place a week on Thursday would be a significant blow to Johnson’s authority, given it has been Conservative since its creation 25 years ago, with the party enjoying a 24,000-plus majority in 2019.

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That majority was delivered by Neil Parish, the MP since 2010, who remains popular among many locally despite the unusual and murky grounds for his resignation – admitting he had watched pornography on his phone in the Commons chamber.

“I mean, he was a bloody fool,” Richey said. “If he’d been looking at naughty pictures anywhere else it wouldn’t have damn well mattered. But in the chamber? It’s like looking at them in church. That said, I know a lot of farmers, and they thought he was marvellous. He did a lot of good work for them.”

Richey exemplifies an apparent shift in opinion, even in such rural, Brexit-backing seats, that goes beyond one-off scandals and the aftermath of Downing Street parties: a sense of Conservative voters being taken for granted.

Similar sentiments cropped up repeatedly in two other shock byelection losses for the Tories over the last 12 months: first in the commuter belt seat of Chesham and Amersham; then in the even less likely terrain of North Shropshire.

The Lib Dems won both seats and, as with North Shropshire, they have positioned themselves as the main challengers in Tiverton and Honiton, despite finishing a distant third in 2019, largely by announcing this is the case.

With Labour focusing on the other byelection on 23 June, in Wakefield, the two opposition parties have in effect chosen to fully fight one battle each.

The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Sir Ed Davey, accused Boris Johnson on Friday of hiding from the people of Tiverton and Honiton.

Davey said: “The fact is he’s not talking to ordinary people. No one seems to know where he is. He might be coming down here but people aren’t seeing him. He’s hiding away from people and I think that says it all. He’s taking this constituency for granted. We’re picking up people who are fed up of being taken for granted.”

The Lib Dem leader spent the morning in Axminster testing the quality of the water in the river before meeting electors on Honiton High Street.”The momentum is with us. There’s everything to play for. We can win here,” he said.

Helen Morgan, who won North Shropshire for the Lib Dems in December, overturning a near-23,000 majority, noted the parallels with her race but played down predictions that the Devon seat would also fall, calling it “a mountain to climb”.

“The Conservatives have been quicker off the ground this time,” she said, after joining the canvassing session along with another MP, Munira Wilson. “We’ve even seen them delivering leaflets here today. It’s going to be a harder fight.”

Clearly spooked by byelection losses and conscious that a double defeat on 23 June could reignite a challenge to Johnson’s authority, the prime minister made a campaign trip to the constituency on Friday, as did Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, part of a planned “blitz” of cabinet visits.

In the Lib Dems’ favour, their chosen candidate, Richard Foord, is a former army officer and prominent local community volunteer who, party aides joke, was not actually created in a laboratory to appeal to soft Tory voters but simply looks as if he was. After a long tour of the Tiverton campus of Petroc higher education college alongside Wilson, the party’s education spokesperson, Foord echoed the scale of the task.

“There are still plenty of lifelong Conservatives here who will not change their habits,” he said. “But I’m also seeing some traditional Conservatives who can’t abide Boris Johnson and his government, and want to send them a message.”

A narrow Tory win would ease the pressure on Johnson, but could just as easily mask the extent of the malaise the party faces in such longtime strongholds.

Stevie Jenkins, running chores in the centre of Tiverton, is one step further along even than Richey. Also a previous Tory voter she is definitely voting Lib Dem this time, in part because she likes Foord, who she says “looks like an honest man”.

“Lots of people who voted Conservative for the first time in 2019 won’t vote Conservative again,” Jenkins predicted. “It’s not so much the parties, it’s the division, the bickering. I was a nursery group manager, and it reminds me of the children. It takes me right back.”