Tiverton And Honiton By-Election: Lib Dems Fight The Expectations Game

"Some Conservatives are angry. But not all of them.”
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“I know he’s a madman in some ways,” says Loll Christie on Honiton high street. “But my argument again is — I think he kind of deserved a little party?”

The Lib Dems are expected to win the Tiverton and Honiton by-election on June 23, overturning the current hefty 24,000 Tory majority.

But there are still quite a lot of Conservatives in Devon. And the expectations game can kill you.

It has not been a good few weeks for Boris Johnson. And there are a lot of things going in the Lib Dems favour.

Tiverton is in their former south west stronghold - although the party has never held this seat itself.

At the local elections in May, the Lib Dems seized control of neighbouring Somerset council. The party has climbed to 15 per cent in the national polls.

The prime minister was recently almost ousted by his own MPs, but his survival has allowed opposition parties to argue it is the entire Tory party that needs to be given a kicking.

And the by-election itself was triggered when the incumbent Tory MP, Neil Parish, resigned after being caught watching porn in the Commons.

“The tide,” Ed Davey says, “Is going out for the Tories.” But the Lib Dem leader, campaigning in the seat, is trying to stop everyone getting carried away.

“The Tories are fighting far harder than they did in North Shropshire,” he says. “There is a battle on our hands. I think it could be really close.”

It is a delicate balancing act, of making a Lib Dem victory highly possible, to make it worthwhile voters turning out, but not so inevitable potential supporters do not think they need to.

The “bicep kissing strategy”, deployed in 2019, of over egging expectations, it is not.

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In December the Lib Dems overturned a 23,000 Tory majority in North Shropshire. This time last year they did similar in Chesham and Amersham.

Both of these seats were snatched before the partygate saga had played out and the cost of living crisis had yet to bite.

Repeating it in Tiverton and Honiton would arguably be their biggest scalp yet.

All three are part of what the Lib Dems have successfully, and somewhat cheekily, branded the “blue wall” - southern Tory seats the party hopes are vulnerable to a yellow wave.

A few days out of the Chesham vote, Lib Dems on the ground were bullishly confident of victory. Westminster was somewhat taken by surprise by that result.

In Tiverton and Honiton the mood is more cautious optimism, despite a Tory loss already having been priced in by many Conservative MPs.

“People do think that. The bookies think that. They are just wrong. I mean, they don’t see the data we see, they don’t knock on doors,” Davey tells HuffPost UK when asked if the Lib Dem candidate, Richard Foord, is all but certain to be elected on Thursday.

“What’s different from North Shropshire is that some Labour supporters are already backing us. It took time to switch them in North Shropshire,” he says.

“The difficulty is you only win these seats if you persuade Conservatives to move over. Some Conservatives in Tiverton and Honiton are angry. But not all of them.”

On the same day as people vote in Tiverton and Honiton, there is a by-election in the red wall Tory held seat of Wakefield.

Labour are expected to easily win the seat back. Although, again, party sources are talking down expectations of a landslide. One poll gave Labour a 20-point lead in the seat.

Davey rejects the suggestion he struck an agreement with Keir Starmer to divvy up the two seats between them. “There’s no deal,” he says. “It’s just rational behaviour.

“My job as Lib Dem leader is to get as many Lib Dem MPs we can with the resources we’ve got.

“We have had a really strong legacy in the West Country. This was a natural seat for us to come and put our scarce resources into.”

He says the party has a “great candidate” in Wakefield. But concedes he is unlikely to mount a serious challenge.

“It was a Labour seat for a long long time. We don’t have the tradition that we have down here. We’ve got a candidate and are proudly flying the flag. But, you know, you face political reality under first-past-the-post.”

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Honiton high street is lined with bunting. Union Jacks jut out from every shop, still up in celebration of the Queen’s Jubilee.

If the Conservatives do hold on to the seat, it will be hard to argue it was a result of a door-knocking charm offensive.

Opposite The Crusty Cob bakery a film crew is hunting for the prime minister, who, somewhat covertly, is in the constituency. “Boris Johnson rumoured to be in Devon,” runs the headline on the local Devon Live website.

Rishi Sunak was spotted earlier in Complete Meats, but the butcher is not terribly excited or showing signs of having been aggressively canvassed. “He’s quite short. Think he just came in for some lunch.”

Helen Hurford, the Conservative candidate, has also not exactly been a constant presence.

A former headteacher who runs a beauty academy, Hurford has not been hugging Johnson close and has been somewhat evasive about whether she would have backed the PM in the confidence vote.

Perhaps surprisingly Neil Parish, given the circumstances of his resignation, is not a pariah.

Foord, a former soldier, says many locals respect how Parish “went quickly”.

“They contrast the very dignified way in which Parish resigned straight away with Johnson,” he says.

“Neil wasn’t a wholly unpopular MP around here. At least he did the decent thing. It’s just a pity the PM doesn’t do the same.”

The Tory campaign is alive to the Lib Dem threat. “Thinking of voting Liberal Democrat?” one bright Lib Dem yellow leaflet delivered by the Conservatives to voters asks, before accusing the party of wanting to “rejoin the EU” and “actively plotting to put Labour into power”.

And as Davey observes, there are plenty of people who remain charmed by the PM.

Christie, 30, supports the PM. I’m not a rich person. I know that a lot of people look at Tories as rich people. I live day-by-day, penny-by-penny. I think he has done quite well.

“In the way that he’s actually had Covid, had a baby and the whole process and just having to go through so much stuff.”

Wayne, 45, shares that view. “I still think that none of the others would have done what Boris has done. He’s the man who’s taken it on the chin. And he’s accepted taking it on the chin.”

The safe bet next week is that the Lib Dems will have pulled off another stunning by-election victory.

But even just as Johnson’s allies claimed seeing off a no confidence vote by one MP would count as a win, holding on in Tiverton and Honiton, despite everything, will be hailed as proof the PM retains his magic electoral touch.


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