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.”
David Cameron's premiership - in pictures
David Cameron's premiership - in pictures
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II greeting David Cameron at Buckingham Palace for an audience to invite him to be the next Prime Minister on 11 May 2010
Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha wave from the steps of Number 10 Downing Street on 11 May 2010
On 12 May 2010 Prime Minister David Cameron said in a press conference with Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, who was then deputy PM, they plan to "take Britain in a historic new direction" and Conservative-led coalition government would be united and provide "strong and stable" leadership
A decade ago, David Cameron visited the Arctic to witness the effects of climate change. However since coming to power in 2010, his government has gradually dropped down a succession of green policies
Prime Minister David cameron told the then New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Queen had “purred down the line” after he told her Scotland had voted against independence in September 2014. He was forced to apologise for breaking constitutional convention
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron greeted soldiers working on flood relief in York city centre after the river Ouse burst its banks, in northern England in December 2015
Claims that David Cameron performed an obscene act with a dead pig and smoked cannabis during his studies at Oxford University spread around the world in September 2015. The extraordinary allegations were made in an unauthorised biography of the Prime Minister written by Lord Ashcroft
David Hartley/REX Shutterstock
In 2016, Mr Cameron was caught up in a worldwide scandal dubbed the “Panama papers”
Prime minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha with seven week old Regan as they meet her parents, first time home buyers Robert Arron and Kelly Jeffers at the Heritage Brook housing development in Chorley, Lancashire. David Cameron has joked that he wants "another baby" and said that he feels a "bit broody" every time he sees a newborn on the campaign trail
Prime Minister David Cameron was criticised for branding refugees in the Calais ‘jungle’ camp as a “bunch of migrants” in January 2016 after thousands of refugees died in their attempt to cross the Mediterranean in 2015
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron speaks with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker during an EU summit meeting on 17 March 2016 at the European Union council in Brussels. Cameron was in Brussels to renegotiate deal of UK membership with other European leaders. The deal, sealed after hours of haggling at a marathon summit, paved the way for a referendum on whether Britain will stay in the EU
President Barack Obama shakes hands with British Prime Minister David Cameron at a meeting at 10 Downing Street in London on 22 April 2016. The President and his wife visited 10 Downing Street where he joined press conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron and made his case for the UK to remain inside the European Union
After David returned from Brussels claiming victory in his renegotiation with European leaders, Boris Johnson announced that he will not support the Remain campaign. The prime minister said publicly he was "disappointed but Boris remains a friend"
Prime Minister David Cameron makes a joint appearance with Mayor of London Sadiq Khan as they launch the Britain Stronger in Europe guarantee card at Roehampton University on 20 May 2016 in London. The 'guarantee card' lists five pledges should Britain remain in the EU, including the protection of workers' rights, full access to the single market and stability for Britain
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron speaks outside 10 Downing Street on 24 June 2016. Cameron announced his resignation after Britain voted to leave the European Union after a bitterly divisive referendum campaign
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.
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.Reuse content