Tory parachuted-in candidate described as “straight from Tory central casting” – love it!
“Independent candidate Claire Wright is gaining ground on the Conservatives:
Fake news, the ripping down of posters, an independent candidate with a chance of winning, and a new Conservative candidate helicoptered in from central casting.
The sleepy coastal constituency of East Devon is not at all used to such excitement at election time. This, according to pretty much any expert you choose to listen to, is the only seat in the UK where the independent has a realistic chance of winning a seat in Westminster.
That independent candidate is Claire Wright, currently a local councillor and a lifelong resident of the constituency.
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“I am going to win. I can feel it here,” she says raising her hand to her chest.
Her confidence is not entirely misplaced. It is clear that Ms Wright is the only candidate in East Devon that can beat the Conservatives for the first time in 156 years.
Boris Johnson visited an East Devon farm shop in an attempt to give the Conservative candidate a boost.
The Tories are clearly concerned at the momentum building for Ms Wright. So much so that Boris Johnson popped up in a local farm shop to support his candidate on Thursday. The same day Ms Wright gained her own celebrity endorsement from Hugh Grant.
Mr Johnson showed up to extol the virtues of Simon Jupp, who has left his role as an adviser to Dominic Raab in the Treasury in an attempt to retain the constituency for the Conservatives following the retirement of Hugo Swire, who bequeathed him a majority of just over 8,000 to defend.
Third time lucky?
While such a buffer would usually suffice, Ms Wright believes her third attempt at the seat is going to send Jupp back to London with his tail between his legs.
Since her first effort in 2015, Ms Wright has all but wiped out support for the Liberal Democrats, and, after the 2017 election, slashed the Tory majority by a third.
“There’s three key things that are different this time around,” says Ms Wright. “First, the funding has been much easier this time around. We’re not quite at our expenses limit of £16,000, but we’re not far off.
“Second, we’re finding far more people know who I am in this campaign, and, third, more and more of them realise that voting for me as an independent candidate is not a wasted vote. They know what I stand for and they know I can win this.”
During her decade in district and county politics Ms Wright has been a vociferous campaigner for local NHS services, environmental matters and education. Indeed, if you put her manifesto pledges next to those of the Liberal Democrats, then you would be hard pushed to notice much difference.
A ‘final’ Brexit referendum
However, one area where she does move away from the Lib Dems is on Brexit. She advocates a second, and final, referendum on this most divisive of issues.
“In that second referendum, I will campaign to remain,” she says. “Clearly, my opponent is pro-Brexit and there’s a distinct difference in our positions on this and so many other incredibly important issues facing people today. I want to boost our local services, while the government has cut funding to them. I want to keep the smaller hospitals like the one we have here in Exmouth open. The Conservative cuts means they could be forced to close. I want to make huge changes in the way we tackle the climate emergency immediately. The Conservatives don’t.”
While the 54 per cent of voters in the East Devon district opted in favour of Brexit, the Parliamentary constituency map extends a little further to the west and into the suburbs of remain voting Exeter. This means the split between leavers and remainers is almost straight down the middle in the Parliamentary seat.
After an hour talking in the Exmouth ice cream parlour owned by her enthusiastic campaign manager Tony Badcott, she drives up to the Brixington area of this beach-loving community to knock on some doors, trying to convince more voters of her ability to represent them in the Commons.
In previous campaigns Ms Wright had not focused her efforts on such areas because they were considered staunch Tory. However, there does appear to be something of a shift. As she walks from door to door, there are two clear themes. Either people are voting for her, or those that did vote Conservative last time remain undecided. The undecideds are in the clear majority, with several Brexiteers suggesting they will not bother voting.
“I voted for Brexit and for the Tories, but they didn’t get Brexit done,” said one animated voter. “I’m not going to bother voting for any of them. They all just lie, and lie and lie.”
While this is clearly a vote Ms Wright cannot count on, it is an indication of what could be the determining factor in East Devon. The more disgruntled, Brexit-backing Conservative voters stay at home on polling day, the greater her odds of winning will be.
Such a victory would be an extraordinary event, as it would be the first ever victory for an independent candidate that has faced competition from all the main parties. There’s no Remain pact here. The Lib Dems and Green Party candidates are currently refusing to give Ms Wright her blessing, despite the fact that their votes could prove crucial in preventing what they do not want most – a Conservative victory.
A new ‘local newspaper’ appears
During the afternoon’s canvassing a member of Ms Wright’s small army of committed volunteers gets in touch with her, after receiving the first, and probably only, edition of East Devon Future through her letterbox. Only on close inspection, and with the help of some magnification for many, does it become clear this ‘local paper’ is nothing of the kind. It is funded, in fact, by the Conservative and Unionist Party.
“It’s fake news,” says Ms Wright. “It’s a clear attempt to deceive voters.”
Conservative central office has posted this newspaper through voters’ letterboxes.
Just an hour or so later, as darkness begins to fall on her campaigning in Brixington, Ms Wright also learns that one of her large campaign boards had been ripped down by “two men dressed in black”. Things are certainly ramping up with only 12 days of campaigning left.
As for Ms Wright’s Conservative opponent, he appears to have realised tide on the River Exe could be turning against him. At Thursday’s hustings at Exmouth Community College, Mr Jupp could not apologise enough for what the Conservatives have delivered, or, for many in the audience, failed to deliver in a raft of areas such as the NHS, education and the environment.
“I am sorry for that,” he began several answers with, hoping the voters would now trust him to make things better.
Ms Wright says: “It was a surprise to hear him lament the ‘scandal that food banks exist’, that the NHS had been ‘neglected’ and to declare that ‘funding has been far too low for far too long’ in our schools.
“His admission that the Conservatives had been ‘not too friendly toward teachers in the past’ will come as no surprise to the watching teachers at Exmouth Community college. They had to write a begging letter to parents when there was not enough money to buy simple materials.”
While no one i spoke to, other than Ms Wright herself, could say she will win for sure, the pressure is certainly on Mr Jupp to deliver for the current occupant of No.10.
When one member of that hustings audience interrupted him to highlight “the devastation Tory austerity cuts had caused” cracks in the Conservative candidate’s composure began to show.
“Don’t heckle,” Mr Jupp snapped back at the voter. “It’s quite rude.”
You get the feeling there’s a lot more heckling left in this race yet.”