Tiverton and Honiton: Can the Lib Dems turn a true-blue seat yellow?

A by-election deep in once-safe Conservative territory threatens to upend British politics. For the parties fighting it, the stakes are huge – but they’re picking their battles in very different ways.

By Jon Kelly www.bbc.co.uk

River Exe at Tiverton

It’s a hot summer morning in mid-Devon and Kayleigh Diggle stands in the bookshop she runs, feeling conflicted. The 32-year-old, who normally supports the Greens, is annoyed with the Conservative government and is considering a tactical vote for the Liberal Democrats. But the sheer relentlessness of latter’s campaign makes her recoil.

“It’s their constant leafleting,” says Kayleigh. She’s sick, too, of looking at the party’s Day-Glo yellow-and-black diamond-shaped posters (“Winning here!”) everywhere she goes. “It’s very, very, over-the-top.”

Voters in Tiverton and Honiton aren’t used to anyone having to fight quite this hard for their votes.

Kayleigh Diggle in her bookshop in Tiverton, Devon

Kayleigh Diggle

Sprawling from the fringes of Exmoor to a stretch of the Jurassic Coast, this cluster of villages and market towns was seen until recently as an extremely safe Conservative seat.

Then erstwhile MP Neil Parish admitted watching pornography in Parliament after, by his own account, searching online for tractors.

Now there’s a by-election to replace him. Partygate, turmoil on the Tory benches and the cost of living crisis have made the 23 June vote a crucial test of the public’s mood.

And with another by-election taking place on the same day in the northern “Red Wall” battleground of Wakefield, Tiverton and Honiton has been tasked with delivering an interim verdict from the Tories’ southern base on Boris Johnson’s government.

The Lib Dems came third here in 2019, while the Conservative winning margin was a gargantuan 24,239. But having recently won a brace of safe Tory seats at by-elections in Chesham and Amersham and North Shropshire, Lib Dem campaigners have poured into the seat.

However, the Conservatives are also battling hard to hold on to what was theirs, albeit with a lower-key, tightly controlled strategy that couldn’t be more different to the Lib Dems’ electoral shock and awe.

And despite talk of an informal alliance between opposition parties, Labour’s candidate, who came second here in 2019, insists she hasn’t given up the fight, either.

Honiton high street

On Honiton’s handsome Georgian High Street, Jubilee bunting flutters against the florists and tea rooms. It’s here that the Lib Dems have set up one of their campaign headquarters in an empty shop unit.

Inside, a crudely sketched map on the wall shows where party volunteers have travelled from – Orkney, Carlisle, Kingston-upon-Hull. The party say that last weekend, 350 activists knocked on 14,000 doors.

Piles of leaflets are carefully arranged into neat bundles by polling district. Canvassers are given issues specific to each area to discuss – river pollution in Axminster, for instance, or lack of dental services here in Honiton.

In charge of directing volunteers today is Chessie Flack, 24. What gives her a political identity, she says, is “this perfect Lib Dem machine of a load of activists in socks and sandals, and they knock on every door in the constituency and they win the campaign”.

But no-one is under any illusions that overturning such a huge majority will be easy.

Chessie Flack working for the Lib Dems

Chessie Flack

In a cafe across the street, the party’s candidate Richard Foord empties a pile of miniature marshmallows into his hot chocolate and stirs. Bookmakers have named him the favourite to win but he knows he’ll need all the energy he can summon.

“I think we can’t entirely take at face value the bookies’ odds as a predictor or a forecast of this election outcome,” Foord says.

“We are absolutely working for every single vote but recognising that there’s a mountain to climb, frankly.”

Richard Foord, Liberal Democrat candidate, Honiton, Devon

Richard Foord

In his Tattersall shirt, Foord, who lives locally, looks like he’s stepped out of the pages of Country Life magazine. He has the military bearing, too, of a man who spent a decade in the Army, having risen to the rank of major. On the front page of a leaflet distributed by his campaign, he is pictured in uniform above the slogan: “I served my country. Now I’m fighting for Devon.”

Along with the Union Jack bunting in the window of the campaign office, this looks a lot like a pitch to the 58% of voters in the seat who voted to leave the EU.

Earlier in the day I spotted Sir Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, on a train heading west, and asked if his party’s “Stop Brexit” slogan under former leader Jo Swinson in 2019 damaged its chances here in 2022. He was emphatic that it didn’t: “Traditionally we’ve been strong in rural communities, Liberal Democrats have been strong in the West Country,” said Sir Ed. “So in many ways this is going back to where our roots are.”

Helen Hurford, Conservative candidate participates in and interview, Tiverton , Devon

Helen Hurford

In a 1980s estate on the fringe of Tiverton, the sun blazes down on a near-empty car park outside a community centre. Half an hour ago, the phone in my pocket buzzed and a Tory press officer summoned me here to meet candidate Helen Hurford.

Previously, the Independent reported that she had been “ordered not to speak to the media”. The Financial Times wrote that she “was being shielded from the national media” and the Times described her as “somewhat elusive”.

But now a car pulls up and out steps Hurford, in a blue dress and trainers. With a broad smile, she flatly rejects the suggestion that she’d been kept hidden from the press corps.

“If you’d wanted to find me you could have just followed me around, knocking on the doors – you would have easily found me,” she says.

Her focus, she suggests, is on the residents of Tiverton and Honiton, not reporters: “The people of the constituency come first.”

Tiverton and Honiton map

She talks about the need to improve the area’s road and rail network and support local farmers. Hurford emphasises, too, that she was born and brought up in Honiton and was the head teacher at a local school. “She has probably taught a large part of the population around here,” says local Conservative activist Luis Gordon.

It’s not the only way in which the Conservative campaign appears to have been carefully managed. While Johnson has visited the constituency during the campaign, his appearances have been low-key and without advance fanfare.

The Lib Dems have accused the prime minister of “hiding away” – but equally, it makes sense for the Tories not to take risks. “It’s a small-C and big-C Conservative area,” says Dr Hannah Bunting, a political scientist at the University of Exeter. “It would really be remarkable if we saw the seat changing hands, even under the current conditions.”

Liberal Democrat campaign boards

Privately, senior Lib Dem insiders concede that the Conservatives are taking this contest a lot more seriously than they did prior to their December 2021 defeat in North Shropshire.

And while national issues might be a headache for the Tory campaign, it’s not clear that the circumstances of Neil Parish’s departure are having much of an impact. The former MP, a farmer himself, enjoyed a lot of goodwill among the agricultural community, according to Richard Tucker, chair of the local National Farmers Union.

Richard Tucker on his farm near Tiverton, Devon

Richard Tucker

“As farmers we felt we were well represented in this area,” adds Tucker. At a recent NFU hustings, he says, “all the candidates were pretty open in acknowledging that they weren’t as agriculturally qualified as Neil. But they’re all open to learning – well, they’ve got to be.”

Issues they’ll need to have brushed up on include the government’s new food strategy, the phasing out of taxpayer-funded direct payments to farmers under an EU scheme and the surging cost of fertiliser – all of huge concern to those working in agriculture locally.

Among those contesting the by-election are the United Kingdom Independence Party, which came second in the seat in 2015, and Reform UK, which shares some of its political DNA, having also once been led by Nigel Farage.

The Green Party, which attracted more than 2,000 votes here in 2019, is also standing again.

Above all, what seems to motivate Conservative activists is the suggestion that Labour – who are concentrating their fire on Wakefield – have agreed to give the Lib Dems a free run in Tiverton and Honiton. Both opposition parties strenuously deny there has been any kind of formal agreement.

But Chris Daw, a local councillor who has been campaigning for Hurford, is visibly riled at the notion of any stitch-up. “It annoys me because I think, you know, let’s just be honest with each other,” she says. “Not just put out hints. I believe they should be straight up front and say what they’re doing.”

Short presentational grey line

If anyone could confirm or deny the existence of a pact, it’s Liz Pole. This is the second time she has stood as Labour’s candidate in Tiverton and Honiton. On the previous occasion, in 2019, she earned more than 11,000 votes while finishing second, albeit distantly.

Over tea in a cafe in Cullompton, in the west of the constituency, Pole is emphatic that there has been no deal. “That is definitely not part of my political DNA whatsoever,” she says. “I’m fighting to win this constituency, I want to see Labour thriving and growing.”

Liz Poole, Labour candidate

Liz Pole

However, Pole, who runs a software business and has lived locally for 20 years, admits it’s “frustrating” to read articles anointing the Lib Dems as the main challengers. Remarks by nearby Exeter MP Ben Bradshaw were interpreted as calling for a Lib Dem win, although Pole says his comments were “taken a little bit out of context”.

While Labour’s big beasts, including party leader Keir Starmer and deputy Angela Rayner, have flocked to Wakefield, it’s harder to detect them in this part of Devon. Asked about this, Pole replies that she’s expecting a visit from shadow food, farming and fisheries minister Daniel Zeichner – a frontbencher, certainly, but perhaps not one with the greatest box-office appeal.

So Pole is getting help from closer to home. She says Labour has activists in each of the seat’s 24 wards and their campaign will go into each of them with her messages about affordable housing, the cost of living crisis and food strategy.

Richard Clarke, 49, has travelled here from Cawsand, south-east Cornwall, to campaign for Pole. He says that on the doorstep, voters are receptive to what she’s saying.

“People know we need a change of government – and people also know that needs to be a Labour government, because obviously you don’t get Liberal governments, unless you’re living in 1906,” he says.

Paul Furlong and Richard Clarke, Labour activists

There’s a sense among Labour’s activists, however, that the by-election has come at an inopportune time for the party.

Broader trends suggest traditional north-south political divides are being upended and in 2021’s local elections Labour won district council seat in Honiton, its first in East Devon for more than two decades. Parish’s resignation, some volunteers feel, interrupted that momentum.

“Voters are looking for a home, I think, and a by-election isn’t necessarily the best time to find that,” says retired academic Paul Furlong, 73, from Aveton Gifford in south Devon.

Nonetheless, Tiverton and Honiton has until Thursday to find a berth, temporary or otherwise.