Tory targets: Clegg's stronghold under siege

With a general election looming, the Conservatives are targeting the Liberal Democrat heartland in the South-west in an attempt to win over voters, writes Michael Savage

Even on a grey, drizzly afternoon on the campaign trail, it is difficult to dampen the spirits of George Eustice. On the Cornish doorsteps, the Conservatives' man for the Camborne and Redruth seat at the next election is detecting signs that his party is on the verge of a major breakthrough. "There is a feeling here that the Liberal Democrats have not delivered locally," he says. "There's everything to play for."

His quiet confidence in defeating Julia Goldsworthy, the high-profile Liberal Democrat MP, would seem misplaced were it not for a set of extraordinary local and European election results that hinted Nick Clegg's party could be in serious trouble at the next election. The Tories made gains in formally staunch Lib Dem heartlands, even winning control of Devon County Council, ending 20 years of Lib Dem rule.

They surprised themselves with the extent of their progress, but the Tories' successes were no accident. While attention has been focused on David Cameron's attempts to win back key marginal seats from Labour, particularly in the Midlands, his election strategists have marked a siege on the Liberal Democrats in the South West as the second front crucial to delivering a Conservative majority at the next election. Far away from the political hot house of Westminster, they are diligently pumping a healthy slice of Lord Ashcroft's millions into claiming the region. It is part of a plan to wipe out the steady gains the Lib Dems have made since the party first appeared on ballot papers in 1992.

Local election victories never ensure similar success at a general election but the national evidence looks similarly ominous for Mr Clegg. The latest polling by ComRes for The Independent suggests the Tories are on course to win nine seats from the Lib Dems in the South West alone, an electoral disaster that would see senior figures like Ms Goldsworthy, Andrew George, and Nick Harvey ejected from the Commons.

"I think that if [Nick Clegg] has a parliamentary party [numbering] in the mid-30s, he will have done really well to hold on to that," said Eric Pickles, the Tory party chairman. "Mid-30s" would mean the party had lost almost half of its 63 Commons seats. "We are fighting a very targeted campaign in the South West," Mr Pickles added. "And we've gone out of our way to get very local candidates."

It is an approach typified by Mr Eustice. "That's my great, great, great grandfather on the farm. He kept lop pigs here," he says, pointing to a grainy sepia photograph on the wall of his family's farm shop. "That's from about 1887." Although he is bracing himself for accusations that he is a "Cameron stooge" (he served as the leader's press secretary from 2005 to 2007), he can counter the attack by pointing out that his family have been in this part of Cornwall for 400 years.

On the doorstep, it is quickly apparent that the Liberal Democrats have lost many of the advantages they held in 2005. To many, after taking charge of local councils and being implicated in the expenses scandal (Ms Goldsworthy's claim for a rocking chair soon crops up in Camborne), they no longer look like outsiders, claiming the moral high ground over their rivals. And unlike in 2005, when their opposition to the Iraq war earned them extra supporters, the Liberal Democrats will be without the one big issue that gave them unique appeal. "A lot of people seem to have forgotten that they do not have something like Iraq this time," Mr Eustice said. It is a message sent directly from CCHQ. "The Lib Dems look very much part of the system," Mr Pickles said. "They don't look like an anti-party in a way that they did look a few years ago. Now they look very tainted."

The Tories have another advantage over their opponent – the bankrolling of their campaign to win marginal constituencies by Lord Ashcroft. While questions remain over his tax status, the money from one of the party's biggest donors is flowing into the South-west offensive. Liberal Democrats have been alarmed at the amount of resources being ploughed in, especially the blitzing of local media adverts. "They're pouring money at it," said Jeremy Browne, a Liberal Democrat MP protecting a minuscule majority of 500 votes in the Somerset seat of Taunton. "They spend more in advertising in the local paper than I spend in campaigning in its entirety over the year. Compared to the Tories our resources are tiny. It makes you wonder how these local papers can possibly be objective when so much money is flowing into them from the Conservatives." He has also noticed that Tory activism on the ground has been significantly beefed up.

Mr Pickles, who is hanging around this summer to prepare the troops for the election campaign, is also aiming his fire squarely at Nick Clegg, a man the Conservatives will label as weak over the coming months. "He's no Charlie," he said, referring to the popular former Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy, who stepped down in 2006 after admitting to a drinking problem. "I never felt Ming [Campbell] made such a bad fist of it, either. I thought the party was impatient and foolish to ditch him. I don't know what to make of Mr Clegg's leadership. I don't mean that in pejorative sense – I literally don't know what to make of it because it hasn't had any kind of cut through. There are times when he looks like a cheap version of David [Cameron]. There comes a time in the electoral cycle when people want a significant change. That change is likely to occur in May next year. The Liberals are a side show."

Hard facts are behind the Tory push to peg back the Lib Dems for the first time in the party's history. To reach the 39 or 40 per cent share of the vote needed for a decent majority, they realise they will need to retain Liberal Democrat support. "We need more than just Conservative votes," Mr Pickles said, adding that his party has worked hard to secure votes in the right areas. "It's been a curse of the Conservative Party that we tend to increase our vote in places we don't need to. I think the local elections demonstrated that we'd learned that lesson. We got 250 seats."

But all the fighting talk from the Tories sounds oddly familiar to many of the Lib Dems being targeted by the offensive. Jeremy Browne is not surprised. "Last time round in my seat, the Tory candidate said he was certain to win. They always say that. In fact, I've yet to hear them apologise for that," he said, accusing Mr Pickles of harbouring an "arrogant" approach towards his party. "It's not safe to say that Labour voters switch to the Tories here. In fact, there is evidence that they often go for us as an anti-Tory vote. Will Liberal Democrats switch to the Tories to express dislike of the Labour Government? I don't see any particularly logic as to why they should do that. In 1983, Margaret Thatcher's greatest triumph, the Tories lost a seat on the same day. It was Yeovil, to the Liberals. They haven't won it back since."

He added that the Liberal Democrats have a secret weapon – the cream tea offensive. To hold on to his ultra-marginal seat, he puts in the hours. His record is five village fetes in one day, with canvassing before and after. "People are quite often amazed at how much work an MP can do when they have a Liberal Democrat," he said. "Only one party has increased its share of the vote at the last three general elections and that's the Lib Dems. We should be able to consolidate our gains." However, he admitted that "any rational analysis" of the polls leads to the conclusion that the Lib Dems will have to fight hard to fend off a Tory push. Lib Dem strategists admit privately that they hope any losses are offset by gaining seats from Labour in northern cities, where they have performed well at local elections.

The Tories are under no illusions that it can suddenly convert a region that has tended to vote for the most liberal party since the 19th-century, though the arrival of Mr Cameron's quest to soften the party's image has made the task much easier. "I'm not expecting people to become Conservatives overnight," said Mr Pickles. "We are saying we respect that you are lending us your vote, and we want the opportunity to earn your vote. In a time of intense national emergency of financial ruin we will be pursuing a centre-right position and we will not be ideological in our approach. We need to create a broad coalition, so we're looking very much for Liberal Democrat voters. To get them, we want to show them that they are more likely to see their concerns, such as ID cards, the environment and sustainability, achieved through a Conservative government."

It is a strategy that will have to succeed if the party is to have a clear mandate as the next government, a fact that is not lost on George Eustice. "People say that we've got a tough battle here, but every battle has its tough encounters," he says, trudging through a leafy Camborne estate. "The fact remains that if David Cameron is going to be the next Prime Minister, we have to win here." The fight is on.

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