Lib Dems face ‘challenge’ to topple Tories in Devon despite anger at the PM, Ed Davey warns

As Sir Ed speaks, Ms Hurford was sitting down for tea and cake at a nearby farm with the Prime Minister, who had snuck in and snuck out of the constituency on his way back from the Cornwall Show. Again, no chatting to the voters, and no media presence.

[Why is Helen Hurford usually described as a “former headteacher” seldom as “beauty salon owner”? – Owl]

By David Parsley inews.co.uk 

The Elsie May’s café in Tiverton loves a blast of pop classics from the 1980s and, so it transpires, does Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey.

Following a day on the by-election campaign trail with his Tiverton and Honiton candidate Richard Foord, Sir Ed is re-energising ahead of an evening rally with a hot chocolate, accompanied by the likes of Aha, Eurythmics, Toto and the soundtrack to Flashdance.

“Oh, I like this one,” says Sir Ed to his advisor. “I went to a Tears for Fears concert when I was a teenager.”

Perhaps Sir Ed has more in common with his nemesis in No 10 after all. While a young Boris Johnson pronounced he wanted to be “king of the world”, one of Sir Ed’s favourite ditties turns out to be the beat combo’s “Everybody Want To Rule The World”.

“Oh, you heard that, did you?”, he says. “They were great, weren’t they?”

Sir Ed’s focus, though, is not so much on world domination. Among Liberal Democrats, everybody wants to rule this piece of Devon after the by-election on 23 June.

Sir Ed has already been to this “winnable” Tory stronghold three times the past few weeks, and he’s going to be around the constituency all weekend.

Despite a Tory majority of 24,239, the bookies have the Lib Dems as big odds-on favourites to take this seat for the first time since its creation in 1997. So, Sir Ed must be brimming with confidence. Not really.

“Well, I don’t believe the bookies,” he says. “We’re not the favourites. We’re the underdogs. It’s a huge challenge. It’s even bigger than the challenge we faced in North Shropshire.”

Of course, the Lib Dems do not want to be seen as the favourites here in farming country. It would look somewhat cocky to assume victory in such a seat, but Sir Ed is a by-election specialist.

Yet, he knows his party is still recovering from the 2010 coalition with David Cameron’s Conservatives. As a Cabinet member in that government, he is all too aware of the damage that collusion with the enemy did to his party.

At the 2010 General Election, Sir Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats won 57 seats in the House of Commons. After a period in power that saw the party ditch its policy on university tuition fees and vote through Tory austerity measures, supporters deserted the party, leaving it with a mere eight MPs at the next election in 2015.

It didn’t get much better in the December 2019 election, when then-leader Jo Swinson launched the party’s campaign claiming she could be the next Prime Minister. She ended up winning just 11 seats and losing her own seat to the SNP.

But after years in the political wilderness, an onslaught of damaging headlines for the Conservatives have helped spark something of a Liberal Democrat resurgence.

By-election victories last year in Chesham and Amersham and North Shropshire have, according to Sir Ed, given his party a renewed momentum.

Now, thanks to the resignation of Neil Parish, the Tory MP who watched pornography on his phone in Parliament, the Lib Dems have another unexpected opportunity to capitalise on that momentum.

“What was good here is that while we were third in Tiverton and Honiton in 2019, we were considered the main challengers from day one,” he says.

“My overall sense is that we are catching up. The challenge is persuading enough Tories who are pretty upset with Johnson, and the Conservatives more broadly, that they can switch to us. We’re having some success in that. The question is, can we keep the momentum going to polling day?”

Referring to odds that place the Lib Dems as firm favourites, he cautions: “I just think it’s still quite an ask. Don’t get me wrong. I think we were really competitive. I just think the bookies’ odds are, well, not a reflection of the challenge we have here.”

One issue for the Lib Dems is that the Conservatives are actually taking this by-election seriously.

Last June, neither the bookies nor the Tories considered them a threat in Chesham and Amerhsam, but they overturned a 12,000-vote Tory majority to claim the seat with an 8,000-strong majority of their own.

Still, back in the Westminster village, Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) seemed equally unphased when the rural constituency of North Shropshire went up for grabs.

After all, there was a comfortable 22,949 majority to defend this time and, thought Mr Johnson, not even the by-election bandits could turn that around.

But turn it around the Lib Dems did, and now sit on a reasonably comfortable near-6,000 majority of their own. That result finally grabbed the attention of CCHQ and, despite an even larger majority here in Tiverton and Honiton, the Conservatives are throwing everything at it.

While the Tory candidate has, so far, declined to talk to the national media and tends to film her campaign videos in safe and easily controlled locations away from voters, her campaign is bombarding the doormats of the 75,000 residents in his part of Devon. In particular, one leaflet has caught the eye.

It is yellow and asks constituents: “Thinking of voting Liberal Democrat?”. It goes on to accuse the Lib Dems of having, among other things, a policy to re-join the EU, voting against border controls, and being committed to putting up energy and road taxes.

Conservative party candidate Helen Hurford has been accused of negative campaigning after sending a flyer in Lib Dem colours to the voters of Tiverton and Honiton (Photo: Supplied)

Conservative party candidate Helen Hurford has been accused of negative campaigning after sending a flyer in Lib Dem colours to the voters of Tiverton and Honiton (Photo: Supplied)

At the very bottom of the page, and in the smallest print permitted by the Electoral Commission, there’s the legal bit that concedes this has been produced on behalf of Conservative candidate Helen Hurford. The Tories are going negative, and Sir Ed admits it will work on some voters, despite denying every point bar one on the not-so-cunningly disguised flyer.

“It is not our policy to re-join the EU,” he says. “We’ve said that the issue in front of us today is the awful trade deal that they’ve done, which is damaging farmers. It’s damaging to businesses and that’s the trade deal we voted against in the House of Commons.”

On the point of the Home Secretary’s border bill, Sir Ed claims it has “a huge number of flaws in it”.

“Let me give you one example,” he adds. “The borders bill means that a Ukrainian refugee who comes here is considered a criminal. I don’t think women and children trying to escape Putin’s bombs should be seen as a criminal. I don’t think Priti Patel should pass a law to make them a criminal.”

As for slapping more taxes on households during the cost of living crisis, Sir Ed says that’s “just a nonsense”.

“I proposed a cut to VAT on fuel, and that would reduce energy bills, not increase them. They can try and make out stuff, but I’ll tell you what our policy is. I’m the leader of the party.”

He then points to a quote on the flyer that Ms Hurford believes will gain her votes. It’s from the Lib Dems’ deputy leader Daisy Cooper.

“We would want to play a role in ousting this Conservative government, that’s our number one priority,” it says.

Sir Ed believes Ms Hurford is doing his candidate’s work for him.

“I tell you what, I want to get Boris Johnson out of 10 Downing Street, and I think the fact that the Tory candidate supports Boris Johnson so much will be an issue for her on polling day.”

As Sir Ed speaks, Ms Hurford was sitting down for tea and cake at a nearby farm with the Prime Minister, who had snuck in and snuck out of the constituency on his way back from the Cornwall Show. Again, no chatting to the voters, and no media presence.

There’s also yet to be any sign of the photo of Ms Hurford and Mr Johnson together on either her website or social media. Perhaps, she agrees with the theory among many local Tories that her boss is more of a liability than an asset in these parts.

After all, she has not hesitated to post pictures and videos with other Tory heavyweights such as Rishi Sunak, Dominic Raab and Oliver Dowden.

“It’s up to voters to decide what they think of that leaflet,” says Sir Ed. “I’m more worried about the fact that the Conservatives are taking this constituency for granted.

“Whether it’s promising forever to reopen train stations and never doing it, or promising investment into Tiverton High School and never doing it, or promising a relief road around Cullompton and never doing it.

“They have made all these promises, and what people are saying, is that they’ve promised these things over the years, but they’ve never made good on them.”

Sir Ed believes “many traditional Tory voters are moving against Johnson” and claims the people of Tiverton and Honiton know they are being “taken for fools” when they “are ignored when it comes to the Government’s levelling up policy”.

“It’s not just because the way Boris Johnson has lied that has led to voters here turning against him,” he says. “It’s also because the Conservatives are not speaking up for the people of Tiverton and Honiton.”

Despite a confidence that the Tories are turning towards his party, Sir Ed claims he is not convinced enough of them will turn in time for when the polling stations open in 12 days’ time.

“If this was a two-month campaign, we’d win without a shadow of a doubt,” he says. “But it’s not. It’s in less than two weeks’ time, and we still have to convince a lot of people here in that short period of time.

“The transition with voters in a by-election campaign goes from ‘oh is there an election?’. That’s the first week or two. Then it goes ‘we’re not very happy with the Tories, Johnson has behaved appallingly and taken us for granted’.

“Then there’s a realisation that, ‘oh, the Liberal Democrats could win here, and I may vote for you’. That’s the journey we’re on, and some people will join that journey really fast, but for a lot of people it’ll take four or five weeks.

“The question is, can we take them on the journey fast enough? The evidence from North Shropshire is we have proved we can do it, but every constituency is different.”

While even the thought of the Lib Dems turning around a 24,239 majority in a true blue rural constituency would have been a ludicrous one a year or so ago, no one here is ruling it out in this crazy political climate.

After all, as Sir Ed knows, Tears for Fears once told us it’s a Mad World.

One thought on “Lib Dems face ‘challenge’ to topple Tories in Devon despite anger at the PM, Ed Davey warns

  1. Tory campaign literature designed to mislead? Not much of a surprise there then. Dishonesty is Tory stock in trade thesedays, and even Tory MPs are now deciding that their leader is a reprobate, unlikely to change his character. The Party that Helen Hurford is standing for is an English Nationalist Party (according to Chris Patten) and not the Conservative Party by any stretch of the imagination. She may not intend that, but she has decided to give it her support anyway, and Tory voters who remember what Conservatism was in its responsible heyday, should not feel obliged to vote for her on 23rd June.

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