The Prime Minister is turning off traditional Conservative voters on the doorstep as he faces a potentially historic by-election defeat in Tiverton, reports Adam Bienkov
On paper, the Liberal Democrats should not have a hope of winning the Tiverton and Honiton by-election on Thursday.
A pro-Brexit rural area that has stuck with the Conservatives for almost a century, Tiverton was held again by Boris Johnson’s party in 2019 with a stonking 24,000 vote majority.
Yet 'Partygate', Johnson's collapsing ratings and the growing cost of living crisis have all combined to give the Lib Dems a real shot of pulling off what would be a truly historic victory.
“The Conservative majority here is absurdly large,” one senior Liberal Democrat figure told Byline Times. “There’s never been a majority of this size overturned in a by-election ever. It’s slightly absurd that we should even be in with a chance."
For this reason, few are placing huge sums on the Lib Dems winning the seat. Sources in both parties say that it is still very close, but after weeks in which it looked like the Conservatives were set for a huge upset, both sides believe the Tories could now just cling on.
“Some of our people who I know down there are starting to think we may just hold on,” one Conservative MP and critic of the Prime Minister told Byline Times. “And these are not usually vocal supporters of the Government so I wonder whether maybe our majority there is just too big a barrier for the Liberal Democrats.”
Despite this, the central assumption among most Conservative MPs is that the party will be defeated in Tiverton.
“There's a bit of a feeling that it may be getting a bit tighter and maybe the Tories might just hold on, but I wouldn't put too much on that,” the MP said. “I mean, we've seen the ability for the Lib Dems to be the receptacle for protest rates, particularly among stay-at-home Tories and soft Tories, and lots of these have moved away from us because of what's been happening over recent months.”
The Lib Dems are cautiously optimistic about their chances, in part because of the poor performance of the Conservative campaign.
“Neither their candidate, their message or the behaviour of the Government is going down well with voters on the doorstep,” one Lib Dem who has been campaigning in the seat explained to this newspaper.
Both sides put the recent decline of the Conservative vote in the area down to Johnson’s shift towards seeking votes in the so-called 'Red Wall' seats of the north of England, rather than in the Tories' traditional southern heartlands.
“If you’re a pro-Brexit Conservative voter in the Red Wall then I can see what they might offer you,” one Lib Dem campaigner said. “But in seats like Tiverton and Chesham they're just really bereft of a message.”
In the run-up to this week's by-elections, the Prime Minister and his party have focused on picking fights over 'culture war' issues such as immigration, trans rights and train strikes. However, the Lib Dems believe that such issues are really second or third order concerns for most voters in Tiverton.
Much of the build-up to the election has coincided with Johnson's failed attempts to put his plans to deport refugees to Rwanda into action. However, while public concerns about immigration were key to the result in the Brexit referendum, national opinion polls show that it has significantly declined as an issue for most voters in recent years.
“What we’re finding is that people now don’t view that immigration is a problem for public services in the way that they perhaps did in the past,” the source said. “Rwanda is a polarising issue but people can see how stretched public services are and they seem to be more worried about the fact that their neighbour can’t get an ambulance because the NHS is short-staffed, than they are about immigration.”
Johnson’s focus on issues like trans sportspeople also seems to be out of touch with what most voters are concerned about, the Lib Dems believe.
“People don’t think much about these issues and fundamentally just want to be nice and decent human beings to each other," said the source. “And if you’re really concerned about the state of the NHS, as people are here, then hearing the PM going to town about trans women in sports events actually sounds as elite, metropolitan, and out-of-touch as the people he’s attacking."
A ‘Red Wall’ Rebellion?
Defeat in Tiverton would spell serious trouble for Boris Johnson’s party, if replicated across its many other seats in the south of England. However, when it comes to the Prime Minister's own chances of remaining Conservative leader, then heavy defeat in Wakefield could prove to be more serious.
Two recent polls in Wakefield suggest that Labour are on course for a thumping victory in the seat that Johnson’s party took from them in 2019.
Not everyone is convinced by this, with one senior Labour figure telling Byline Times that it was “ludicrous” to believe it could win back the seat with such a large majority after losing it only three years ago.
However, if the polls are broadly accurate, then it could pose serious problems for the Prime Minister.
During the recent confidence vote, Johnson was able to cling on in large part to the fact that he retains support from most of the Conservative MPs in Red Wall seats who were elected under his leadership in 2019. If Labour wins back Wakefield with a large majority, their calculation about the benefits of keeping him in power could change.
“I still think that the Wakefield by-election is more significant because colleagues in the south and south-east have been picking up the fact that the Government appears to be out of tune with our core vote for quite a while, so defeat in Tiverton wouldn’t be such a surprise," one Conservative MP told Byline Times.
“Wakefield is different and would get a whole other chunk of the parliamentary party starting to look over their shoulders."
Whatever the margin of victory in Wakefield, it still looks overwhelmingly likely that Labour will win it, whereas the result in Tiverton still looks very much in doubt.
Internal canvassing returns put out by the Liberal Democrats this week suggest that the race is neck-and-neck, although it is difficult to know whether these numbers are merely expectation management from a party that privately expects to win.
“It’s looking very promising,” one senior Lib Dem MP admitted. “We think we’re in with a good shot of winning it. We really shouldn’t be, but we are.”
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