Inside the Lib Dem plot to conquer the Tory South

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A strong showing in the south in local elections, including an eye-catching win in Somerset, has emboldened Lib Dem hopes. Sir Ed says the party has opportunities in areas that have “been taken for granted” by the Tories.

“We talk to people who share our values, but maybe have in the past voted Conservative but actually are looking at us and saying ‘you know what, these guys have been consistently strong in these areas’.”

Justice Secretary Dominic Raab in Esher and Walton and Jeremy Hunt, currently the bookies’ favourite to succeed Boris Johnson as Tory leader, in South West Surrey are high-profile MPs under threat if there is a swing towards the Lib Dems in these seats. The former has just a 2,700 majority while the latter has a 8,800 advantage that was halved by the Lib Dems at the 2019 election.

Others at risk on the list of Lib Dem marginals are Conservatives calling for the Prime Minister to go, including
Stephen Hammond in Wimbledon and William Wragg in Hazel Grove.

Former Lib Dem leader Sir Vince Cable says: “We’ve got the reassertion of the old kind of guerilla army approach to politics.

“We find it very difficult obviously to compete nationally under the first past the post system. But if we concentrate all our resources in places where we’re strong or have a potential breakthrough, we can do spectacular things.”

He says any resurgence in the south “isn’t just an overnight thing” but the resumption of a recovery that started under his leadership. Sir Vince says this was “all thrown away” in the party’s “disastrous” 2019 election under Jo Swinson, a defeat he attributes to middle class fears of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour rather than a misfiring Lib Dem campaign.

One theory is that the political realignment that emerged in the 2019 election is only half complete. Some believe that in driving tanks on Labour’s lawn, the Conservatives have left their own backyard exposed.

While working class Brexit voters are shifting blue in the north, in the south the Conservatives face threats on two fronts. Labour voters leaving the capital to find affordable housing are moving into the Tory shires while the Lib Dems are gaining ground in Remain-backing and anti-housing development areas.

A Conservative MP in a southern seat with a shrinking majority is avoiding speaking publicly about Brexit for fear of defeat.

“I’ve got to win a marginal seat and I’m not going to win a marginal seat by p—ing off Remain voters,” the MP says.

“I’m in a Remain-leaning seat with lots of angry Remain voters and I just can’t keep putting them off.”

Lord Barwell, Theresa May’s chief of staff in No 10 and a former Tory minister, agrees a political realignment in Britain has long been in the making, a shift that is sweeping other countries including the US.

“I think for about 20 years, it’s been a realignment going on. I think Brexit actually acted as a catalyst to it so socioeconomic class is no longer a strong predictor of voting intention.

“That has opened up a bunch of ex-industrial heartland, working class seats in the Midlands and the North to the Conservatives. But there’s a flip side of it in London and in some of these seats in the South East.”

He believes Conservative counterattacks in the south will be based on a “rerun” of the 2015 election campaign where fears were stoked of a “coalition of chaos” led by Ed Miliband’s Labour. 

Even so, the main talking point in Devon is not a grand realignment in British politics but Johnson and his running of No 10.

Emma Ranson-Bellamy, owner of Tiverton clothing store Snob, is backing the Lib Dem candidate, saying the party can “bring balance” between the Conservatives and Labour. She says: “If you put a monkey in the palace, the monkey doesn’t become a king. The palace becomes a circus. That’s exactly what is going on at the moment.”

While both the Conservative and Lib Dem candidates would rather claim the campaign has been fought on policy and governance, they admit that Partygate is repeatedly coming up on the doorstep.

Ms Hurford, the Conservative candidate, says: “Of course it does come up. It’s coming up less, especially after this week and the vote of confidence.

“I think people just want to really crack on. We have a cost-of-living crisis, they want to know what I’m going to do about it.”

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