The Lib Dems could steal David Cameron’s seat – and that’s good news for the 48 per cent

Although most expect the Conservatives to hold the Oxfordshire seat, Thursday’s contest still matters. Here’s why

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The Independent Online

When a bruised David Cameron suddenly stood down as an MP last month, the resulting by-election in his Witney seat was considered to be a non-event. After all, he landed a huge majority of 25,155 and 60 per cent of the vote to the Conservatives at last year’s general election.

Yet, although all parties still expect the Conservatives to hold the Oxfordshire seat, Thursday’s contest matters. The Liberal Democrats came fourth last year with just 7 per cent of the vote, but could now leapfrog Labour and Ukip into second place. Normally there are no prizes for political runners-up, but if the Lib Dem candidate Liz Leffman comes a strong second it would give some credence to the “Lib Dem fightback” messages that activists send to each other to keep their spirits up after their crushing defeat in 2015.

The party’s gloom deepened after the Brexit vote, and yet paradoxically it might just throw it a lifeline. Witney will test Tim Farron’s pitch to the often forgotten 48 per cent who backed Remain. His call for a second referendum on the exit terms is too risky for some in his own party. They fear that apparently ignoring the voters’ June verdict will do the Lib Dems no favours in the Tory-held constituencies where their revival prospects are best.

Although Witney is not ideal Lib Dem territory, the constituency nevertheless voted Remain by 54 to 46 per cent. Farron’s party is targeting the Tory Remainer. Nick Clegg even portrayed himself as keeper of the Cameron flame, warning voters in a letter: “A win for the pro-Brexit Conservative candidate [Robert Courts] on Thursday will send exactly the wrong message… that Britain has given up on its role in the world. That we’re not going to fight to stay in the single market. That the hardliners have won.”

Lib Dem polling suggests that, after a hard Brexit looked inevitable at this month’s Tory conference, full single market access is by far their party's most popular pledge, outstripping Farron’s USP of a second referendum. Voters may now have clocked the benefits of the single market in a way that many did not before the June vote. The Remain campaign’s failure to explain the merits was disastrous.

A good Lib Dem result in Witney might embolden the MPs in all parties who believe the Commons would support a soft Brexit – prioritising market access over migration curbs – but who are struggling to persuade May to give them a real say before Brexit talks with the EU start next year.

Winner normally takes all under our electoral system, and so Theresa May will be privately relieved just to hold Witney. But her advisers will be poring over the numbers on Friday morning.

Signs of a Lib Dem revival could also influence the Government’s long-awaited announcement on Heathrow Airport next week. It appears that May is ready to back a third runway but if she does, the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith has threatened to resign and provoke a by-election in his Richmond Park constituency. Tory whips are believed to have warned May that, if Goldsmith runs as an independent, a split Tory vote could hand a famous by-election victory to the Lib Dems, who oppose Heathrow expansion. Goldsmith might not be the only Tory MP to resign over the issue.

One or more by-election wins would give Farron’s party what it gasps for – the oxygen of publicity. It is very hard to be taken seriously by the media or the voters when you have just eight MPs. The Lib Dems are flatlining at around 8 per cent in the opinion polls (one per cent for each MP, perhaps). 

But they are not dead, just sleeping: membership is up by a third to 80,000 since the general election. The Lib Dems have made a net gain of 20 seats in council by-elections since May, while the Tories are down 13 seats, Labour down six and Ukip down one. With Ukip in self-destruct mode, there is a vacancy for a protest party again. 

Tim Farron: On May, Brexit fallout and the Lib Dems’ future

The county council elections next May should prove a better hunting ground for the Lib Dems than Labour, but the real prize would be another Commons seat, showing that the Lib Dems are back in the game and on the public radar.

Although the Tories enjoy a comfortable poll lead over Labour, Farron believes this reflects people choosing between a government at least getting on with the job and an opposition more preoccupied with its own internal battles.

Having eight MPs is a huge handicap. If Farron had 28, the likelihood of a new centrist party including anti-Corbyn Labour MPs and the Lib Dems would be much greater. It might yet happen after the next general election. 

Indeed, reports of the “death of the centre” may prove exaggerated. There should be a space for the Lib Dems in our politics, given Labour's lurch to the left and right-wing hand signals from May on immigration, grammar schools and Brexit despite her centre ground rhetoric. But the Lib Dems will have to earn it, and it will be long road back.