The Tories are at risk of losing more than both by-elections

Boris Johnson has survived the verdict of his own MPs – for the time being at least. But on Thursday he faces the judgement of the electorate in two key parliamentary by-elections at opposite ends of England, in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton.

John Curtice www.independent.co.uk 

The verdict from the ballot boxes may not be so kind for the prime minister. Certainly, his party faces a severe challenge in retaining the Wakefield seat. One of the so-called “red wall” seats that the Conservatives gained in 2019 – after not having been victorious locally since 1931 – the party is defending a relatively small seven-and-a-half point majority.

A swing of a little less than 4 per cent from Conservative to Labour would be sufficient for Sir Keir Starmer to reclaim the seat and register his party’s first by-election gain under his leadership.

Labour ought to have little difficulty in surmounting this hurdle. At the moment, the national polls are registering as much as a nine-point swing since the last general election – and by-elections in the middle of a parliament often record markedly bigger swings to the opposition than those in the current national polls, as some voters use the by-election to express a mid-term protest.

True, the Brexit party won six per cent of the vote locally in 2019, votes that the Conservatives might now hope to pick up, but even if they do – and there are plenty of other Eurosceptic options available to voters on the Wakefield ballot paper – this is unlikely to be sufficient to stem the outgoing Tory tide.

Indeed, there are signs that Labour might well win the seat quite comfortably. Voters in the constituency went to the polls just last month in order to vote for their local councilors – and across the constituency Labour were ahead of the Conservatives by 51 per cent to 34 per cent.

Meanwhile two polls conducted early on in the campaign (albeit with limited sample sizes) put Labour at 20 and 23 points ahead. Indeed, a 20 point lead would represent a swing of nearly 14 points, higher than the party has achieved at any by-election since the party lost power at Westminster in 2010.

In truth, this is probably the kind of result that the party needs to achieve if it is to suggest that it might be capable of posing a bigger threat to the Conservatives than it did at the last three general elections.

The other by-election, in Tiverton and Honiton, is very different in character. This is what would usually be regarded as a safe Conservative seat. The party won 60 per cent of the vote in 2019, enough to put it 20 points ahead of Labour, and 25 points of the Liberal Democrats. Only once – in a 1920s by-election – has the area ever elected anything other than a Conservative MP.

Yet, despite starting in third place, the Liberal Democrats are pouring their activists into the constituency. The party hopes to repeat its success last December when, although starting in third place, it took North Shropshire from the Conservatives on a 34-point swing – well above the 23-point swing it now needs in Tiverton and Honiton.

Meanwhile, despite their current third place, the Liberal Democrats have performed strongly in the constituency in the past, most notably almost winning the seat at the 1997 general election. In short, there is a past local tradition of voting Liberal Democrat that the party might hope to revive on Thursday.

Success for the Liberal Democrats is by no means guaranteed. The party is still no stronger in the national polls than it was at the last general election – so it is wholly reliant on the momentum that it can generate locally. Success will depend not only its ability to garner the support of dissatisfied Conservatives but also the tactical support of those who would otherwise vote Labour.

Whether or not Labour’s vote collapses to the benefit of the Liberal Democrats, as it did both in North Shropshire and in the Liberal Democrats’ other by-election success a year ago in Chesham and Amersham, could well be crucial to the outcome.

Indeed, what Labour supporters decide to do in Tiverton and Honiton (and the already small body of Liberal Democrat supporters in Wakefield) could well be the most important feature of Thursday’s two results. In 2019, there was relatively little evidence of anti-Conservative tactical switching (in either direction) among Labour and the Liberal Democrat supporters.

Many Labour supporters had seemingly not forgiven the Liberal Democrats for their involvement in the 2010-15 Tory-led coalition, while many Liberal Democrats regarded backing Labour as a leftward step too far. However, there were signs in last month’s local elections that those days may be over, with both Labour and the Liberal Democrats advancing most strongly in Tory-held wards where they were starting off in second place.

Such a pattern implies that the Conservatives may now not only face the challenge of how to recover the support lost in the wake of Partygate and the cost of living crisis, but also that of overcoming an increased antipathy to Boris Johnson and his government, an antipathy that threatens the party with the prospect of having to fight the next election on two fronts as opposition supporters use whatever stick – be it Labour or the Liberal Democrats – seems the most effective way of beating the Conservatives locally.

As Lady Bracknell might observe, for the Conservatives to lose one by-election on Thursday might be regarded as unfortunate. However, to lose two might look like much more than carelessness – but a sign of a government that is at risk of losing its electoral footing.

John Curtice is professor of politics, Strathclyde University, and senior research fellow at NatCen Social Research and The UK in a Changing Europe

Tories’ Helen Hurford hides from voters and media as Tiverton and Honiton by-election looms

You would be forgiven for thinking the Conservative Party had forgotten how to campaign.

Frit” – Owl

By David Parsley inews.co.uk 

Throughout large and rural Tiverton and Honiton constituency, there’s barely a Conservative poster to be seen, no sign of the party faithful knocking on doors, and the candidate Helen Hurford is in hiding.

Having seen the former headteacher turned beauty salon owner at two hustings – over the past week – she could not get away with claiming prior diary commitments to avoid those even though she tried – I know there is little point in waiting around to try and speak with her after taking part in the BBC Radio Devon’s candidates’ debate on Tuesday morning.

She tends not to hang around to chat to voters, and a comment to the media is out of the question.

My hunch was that the same would happen again, so instead of watching her leg it to her car after the debate – which is exactly what she did according to those on the ground – I decide to camp outside her campaign headquarters, tucked away from public view between Tiverton and Cullompton, where I listen to the debate and await her inevitable arrival soon after it ended.

The radio debate, in which she announces her plan to deliver “adequate” public services to the people of mid-Devon, ended at 10am. At 10.15am she arrives at HQ with her sidekick, local Tory chairman Gillian Evans.

As she enters the reception area, I follow her in. Immediately after identifying myself Ms Evans whisks her charge away to the back of the office.

Two burly volunteers then block my path to her and tell me to leave, suggesting I get in touch with the press office to request an interview, something I have done on countless occasions over the past week.

I ask to put just a couple of questions to Ms Hurford.

“This is private property, please leave,” says one of the Tory enforcers.

So, off I go to try my luck at Ms Hurford’s other campaign office on an industrial estate at the other end of the constituency in Honiton. No luck here either.

After asking the lone Tory activist how the campaign is going, he puts himself between me and the entrance.

“This is private property, and you need to leave”, he says, assisting me out of the door a nudge.

This is a common occurrence in this Conservative campaign. Ms Hurford has only been seen at structured events. She has not been let loose among anyone other than Conservative acolytes.

Helen Hurford's Conservative campaign hideaway (Photo: David Parsley)

Helen Hurford’s Conservative campaign hideaway (Photo: David Parsley)

Over the past three weeks I have spoken to hundreds of local residents in dozens of towns and villages across this traditionally true-blue seat. Not one of them has seen the Conservative candidate on their street, let alone knock on their door.

Many have seen the other candidates, especially Ms Hurford’s main rival, the Liberal Democrats’ Richard Foord.

Why is Ms Hurford avoiding the locals and hiding from a media attempting to put questions to her on behalf of voters?

I can think of two possible reasons. First, the Tories don’t think she’s up to facing probing questions.

Second, the campaign thinks it already has this by-election in the bag, which is not crazy talk considering the Tories are defending a huge majority of 24,239.

However, an internal Tory campaign email pleading for more volunteers to “get our voters to the polls” would suggest Ms Hurford is not entirely convinced she will retain this seat for her party.

While the media is all but banned from getting close to Ms Hurford, the same cannot be said of her Lib Deb rival in this by by-election, forced upon Boris Johnson after his Neil Parish resigned the seat after being caught watching porn on his mobile phone in Parliament.

Indeed, Mr Foord cannot get enough of talking to voters, or pushing his message to the media.

Liberal Democrat candidate Richard Foord (left) meets with former NFU deputy president Stuart Roberts and farmer Ella Weech (Photo: Supplied)

After being thrown out of the Tory campaign offices I took to the country lanes of the glorious Blackdown Hills to meet him at Ella and Ed’s Burnt House Farm.

On the way I begin to count how many signs the Lib Dems have. I stop at well over 200, largely because the narrow lanes require my full attention.

There were no burly fellas getting in the way of this candidate, but the cattle being herded along the roads almost made me miss my appointment.

I’m 10 minutes late, but Mr Foord doesn’t mind. He introduces me to Stuart Roberts, who stepped down as deputy president of the National Farmers Union in February so he could add his support the Lib Dem campaign in Tiverton and Honiton.

The agriculture vote traditionally goes to the Conservatives, but many farmers are now tempted to switch as they feel the Government has sold them down the river by cutting funding and doing post-Brexit deals with the likes of New Zealand and Australia that undermine their ability to compete.

It is a crucial block vote in these parts, and Mr Foord is doing all he can get as much of it over to his side.

“If you saw the face of the Australian agriculture minister when he was announcing this deal to his farmers you could tell he was very please indeed,” says Mr Roberts.

“I just wish we had ministers that were as passionate about helping farmers. Instead, they undermine us with trade deals that bring cheap and low standard produce into the UK. Plus, they are taking £94m of funding from farmers, which will mean many will go under.”

The latest internal polling from the Lib Dems shows Mr Foord and Ms Hurford are neck and neck, both with 45 per cent of the vote. However, there are many undecideds yet to convince and both camps are hoping they will plump for their candidate when the polls open on Thursday.

I find one of those undecided voters as a grab a bite in Toast, a delicious café in Honiton.

“I don’t know who I’m voting for,” she says. “I know Helen [Hurford] pretty well as her beauty salon is opposite my house. But I don’t know if I’m voting for her or the Lib Dems. It’s a bit difficult.”

“I’m seeing a change,” says Mr Foord. “This week we have certainly met many people who are coming over to the Liberal Democrats. That doesn’t mean I’m saying we will win. It means I believe it’s going to be very close.

“One thing I am certain of is that the Conservatives can no longer rely on this being a safe seat with a huge majority. They have taken Tiverton and Honiton for granted for far too long and the people here know that.”

As Mr Foord pops off to feed the sheep, the contrast between the Lib Dem and Tory campaigns could not be starker. I am invited to accompany Mr Foord on the final day of campaigning, along with former Lib Dem leader Tim Farron.

I have asked Ms Hurford to go out and shadow her as she attempts gain votes for weeks but, unsurprisingly, the answer is always a firm “no”.

This means of course, I will never know if the residents I spoke to are right, and whether she does actually knock on doors.

Martin Shaw: Tomorrow is decision-day for Tiverton & Honiton: united we can win

Tomorrow we, the voters of Tiverton & Honiton, choose our MP. We have a unique opportunity, in the face of the most deceitful, corrupt and authoritarian Tory government in living memory, to get a decent, honest MP who will oppose its mounting crimes against democracy.

Martin Shaw, Chair East Devon Alliance (and so says Owl)

seatonmatters.org 

‘In this election, many will find tactical voting the only way forward.’ – Gill Westcott, Green candidate

Richard Foord is not just the Liberal Democrat candidate. He is the candidate of all Labour, Green and independent voters who wish for change in this election.

UNITED we can defeat the dismally ignorant Conservative candidate who will simply be a tool of Boris Johnson and his party machine.

As Gill Westcott, the Green Party candidate, says in today’s Midweek Herald: ‘In this election, many will find tactical voting the only way forward.’

This is grown-up politics. In other words, don’t vote for me, but vote Liberal Democrat because they can WIN!

Boris brand loses 60% of its value at auction

After a fierce bidding war, the dinner with Boris Johnson and the two leaders he helped get rid of — David Cameron and Theresa May — went for £120,000 to an undisclosed bidder. However, in perhaps a sign of flagging donor enthusiasm for “face time” with the party’s big names after 12 years in power, it was still some way off the £300,000 paid for dinner with Johnson after he became prime minister in July 2019.

Awkward reunion ahead for Boris Johnson and former PMs at donor dinner

Oliver Wright www.thetimes.co.uk 

Dave doesn’t much like Boris and Boris doesn’t much like Dave. Theresa really doesn’t like either of them — and isn’t very good at hiding it.

Now one lucky Tory donor will have the privilege of watching the past decade of Conservative psychodrama play out in front of them over a three-course dinner.

The “prize” was the star attraction at the Tory fundraising dinner at the V&A museum in South Kensington last night [Monday], which included an Abba tribute band and a host of cabinet ministers under strict instruction to turn on the charm for the party’s donor base.

After a fierce bidding war, the dinner with Boris Johnson and the two leaders he helped get rid of — David Cameron and Theresa May — went for £120,000 to an undisclosed bidder. However, in perhaps a sign of flagging donor enthusiasm for “face time” with the party’s big names after 12 years in power, it was still some way off the £300,000 paid for dinner with Johnson after he became prime minister in July 2019.

Those attending the event included the property tycoon Nick Candy and the former investment banker Lubov Chernukhin, whose husband Vladimir is a former chairman of the Russian state development corporation VEB.RF, which has been placed under sanctions by the UK.

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the party has faced calls to return more than £2 million that Chernukhin has given it over the years. It has refused to do so.

Chernukhin has a reputation as a big bidder at fundraisers. She previously paid £160,000 for the chance to play tennis with Cameron and Johnson in 2014, and £135,000 to have dinner with May and six of her cabinet ministers in 2019.

Those attending the V&A dinner had to run a gauntlet of boos after dozens of workers from the Public and Commercial Services Union and the former shadow chancellor John McDonnell turned up to picket the event.

Inside guests dined on salmon tartare followed by beef with asparagus mash, and finished off with passion fruit meringues. Premium tables for ten went for £20,000 each and standard ones for £12,500, with guests including Priti Patel, Liz Truss and Sajid Javid as well as Johnson.

Auction prizes also included an African safari trip sold for £65,000, a shooting weekend for £37,000, and a wine tasting for £30,000.

A Conservative spokesman told The Spectator: “Fundraising is a legitimate part of the democratic process. The alternative is more taxpayer-funding of political campaigning, which would mean less money for frontline services like schools, police and hospitals — or else, being in the pocket of union barons, like the Labour Party.”

Are the rail strikes a “wedge” issue?

Majority of voters back rail strikes and think Boris Johnson not doing enough to prevent them

Andrew Woodcock www.independent.co.uk

A majority of voters think this week’s rail strikes are justified and two-thirds (66 per cent) think the government has not done enough to prevent them happening, according to a new poll.

The survey, by Savanta ComRes, found that 58 per cent of those questioned thought the strikes were justified, against just one-third (34 per cent) who say they are not.

The findings, based on a poll of 2,336 adults on Monday, suggest that Boris Johnson’s attempts to use the strikes as a “wedge” issue to draw a political line with Labour may not be succeeding.

However, Savanta’s political research director Chris Hopkins cautioned that opinions may shift over the course of week of disruption during which three strike days are planned.

Strikingly, the poll found that six in 10 (60 per cent) say that they are generally supportive of workers striking, while just 35 per cent were generally opposed.

The poll indicated that more voters blame government than the unions for the industrial action, which is expected to be followed by more strikes later in the year.

Some 66 per cent said that the government had not done enough to prevent them happening, 61 per cent said the same about transport secretary Grant Shapps, 57 per cent Network Rail and 49 per cent the RMT.

Younger voters aged 18-34 (72 per cent) and Labour voters (79 per cent) were more likely to see the strikes as justified compared to their older (44 per cent) and Conservative-voting (38 per cent) counterparts.

Bookies predict Tiverton and Honiton by-election bloody nose for Boris

Betfred is predicting an historic by-election defeat for Boris Johnson. The Liberal Democrats are odds on for a stunning victory at Tiverton and Honiton on Thursday overturning the biggest majority ever in a by-election in British political history.

Lewis Clarke www.devonlive.com

Tiverton shop manager Darren Newberry

The seat is up for grabs after Tory MP Neil Parish resigned after admitting watching porn in the House of Commons. He won the seat in the 2019 General Election with a thumping 24,239 majority – and defeat on Thursday will send shockwaves all the way to Downing Street.

Hundreds of politically savvy Betfred punters, who cashed in big time on Donald Trump being elected against the odds as US president and bashing Betfred again with the against all predictions Brexit vote, have made Devon vote the busiest by-election market in the bookie’s 55-year history.

Of more than 500 punters, who have put their money where their mouths are betting between £2 and £10,000 on the outcome, 47 per cent reckon a win for the Lib-Dem’s Richard Foord is on the cards with 43 per cent going for Conservative candidate Helen Hurford with Labour and the Green Party sharing the remaining ten per cent of the wagers.

Betfred organised £1 free bets in our shop at Bampton Street in Tiverton town centre where the majority of our canny customers thought the Tories were best value to triumph at 11/4 with the Lib-Democrats at 1/ 4 while Labour’s Liz Pole – second in 2019 – are at 150/1 with the Greens and the four other parties Heritage, Reform UK, For Britain and UKIP all at 500/1.

Tiverton shop manager Darren Newberry said: “Normally all the banter as you would expect is about the football, horse racing and greyhounds but this week the shop has been buzzing with everyone talking about the by-election. The interest levels have been phenomenal.”

Of the Betfred customers Roger Hart, a 69 year old grandad, said that the sitting MP had made a “silly mistake” and that Prime Minister had endured a tough two years coping with Covid, the war in Ukraine, cost of living crisis and train strike – not to mention Partygate.

However the retired brewery worker added that he’d previously voted Labour although this time he’d be backing Boris partly because “there is no one else to be Prime Minister.” He reckons the farming community in the constituency will hold sway…and the Conservatives have never let the farmers down.

Supermarket cleaner Anthony Winslet, aged 43 is meanwhile planning to vote Lib-Dem. He said: “They deserve a chance and I prefer them to the Conservatives. It’s not a protest vote but the odds show that this time there is a great chance of a change here.”

BETFRED TIVERTON AND HONITON BY-ELECTION

1/4 Liberal Democrats

11/4 Conservatives

150/1 Labour

500/1 Green Party

500/1 Any Other Party

BETFRED ODDS ON NEXT PERMANENT TORY LEADER

5/1 Jeremy Hunt

5/1 Penny Mordaunt

7/1 Liz Truss

8/1 Tom Tugendhat

9/1 Ben Wallace

9/1 Rishi Sunak

10/1 Nadhim Zahawi

16/1 Sajid Javid

20/1 David Frost

25/1 Dominic Raab

25/1 Michael Gove

33/1 Jacob Rees-Mogg

33/1 Priti Patel