Stephen Lloyd: The Lib Dems 'saved the country, but we destroyed ourselves'

So how can the party win back voters who didn't want them to join the Coalition? Cole Moreton meets his MP to find out

Cole Moreton
Sunday 15 March 2015 01:00
Stephen Lloyd won Eastbourne at the last election by drawing anti-Tory votes
Stephen Lloyd won Eastbourne at the last election by drawing anti-Tory votes

We are face to face and furious. My MP and I standing up and shouting at each other in a tiny room at his constituency office, flecks of spittle flying. “Go back to the f***ing economics, you b***ard!”

Stephen Lloyd’s language is straight out of The Thick of It, but then so was mine. We are grinning at the pleasure of saying exactly what we think to each other, no holds barred, but this is serious.

I have accused him of betraying the people who voted for him.

Mr Lloyd won the seat of Eastbourne on the south coast by a narrow margin last time out because of years of hard graft in the town, but also because a sizeable number of people wanted to vote for anyone but a Tory. The same thing happened across the country.

Then a few days later, the people who voted on that basis watched in horror and dismay as their new MPs signed up to a coalition that put the Tories in power. Vote yellow to keep out the blues, but get the blues anyway? That did not feel like democracy.

“We saved the country,” yells Mr Lloyd, too close in this claustrophobic box of a room. “We may have killed ourselves, but we saved the country economically!”

That’s debatable, and is being debated all over again in the run-up to this election. The coalition blew tactical voting out the water. What are people in two-horse towns like ours supposed to do now?

And there’s a bigger question, being asked by many more as politics fractures. What do you do if you remember broken promises on all sides, and can’t bring yourself to believe in any of the party leaders?

The answer can only be to vote for the person in front of you, the name on the ballot paper that you trust the most. If there are any at all. “I know there are people who were pretty cross,” says Stephen Lloyd. “I am working hard to bring them round.”

I put his big yellow board up in my garden last time because I wanted anyone but Nigel Waterson, the veteran Conservative MP who, I felt, was taking the mickey by living far away and popping down for visits like a minor royal.

It was personal, not political. Others felt they had to vote tactically, as Labour and the Greens are never anywhere in Eastbourne. That’s just how it is. Ukip is rising, but was largely absent last time.

So the anti-Tory (and anyone but Nigel) vote went to Mr Lloyd, a 57-year-old former business adviser with an unusual face that is flushed right now and a voice that strangles when he gets worked up like this.

He’s not slick and says he has never been trendy. People like him, though, because he works like a devil for the town and obviously really cares.

You may have seen him on the television, telling everyone Eastbourne would rally round after part of the pier burned down last summer. Or more recently, demanding that the Home Office give visas to the Zimbabwean grandparents of a little girl called Andrea who had been killed in a road accident. The family was able to mourn her together because of him.

He defends the coalition but is astonishingly frank about the price his party is paying for being part of it.

“I really believe the Liberals have played a pivotal role in stopping the Tories from being completely demented, helping the country get through the most difficult recession in years, making some difficult decisions on pensions that any grown-up knew needed to be made, and we’ve got killed. Nick’s killed.”

The Liberal Democrats are said to be heading for a wipeout at this election, and the leader may lose his seat in Sheffield. “He’s no huge fan of mine. I am not one of his blooming acolytes. I am too bloody old to be a fag. I am! But Nick Clegg is one of the sanest, most decent, bravest politicians I have ever met.”

Part of Eastbourne pier burned down last summer (Getty)

If I don’t believe him, apparently I should ask his partner, Cherine, who works in the NHS and is not a politician but “a normal human being”. They met at a New Year’s Eve murder mystery evening soon after the divorcee came to the town to try to win it 12 years ago. She has met and admires Mr Clegg. “But you and I know he is toast. The right-wing media who are out to kill us have completely traduced him. That is the nature of the beast.”

To be fair, if Mr Clegg is toast, then he put himself in the toaster, along with the rest of his party.

“Those on the left are furious with us for getting into bed with the Tories,” says Mr Lloyd. “Then there is the Horlicks with the tuition fees, which hurt our brand. One of our core values was our integrity. That was a disastrous mistake. It gave us an absolute pounding.

“Some of my colleagues moan a bit, but to be honest I just tell them to shut the fuck up. When you lose respect, there is no shortcut to getting it back. You do the heavy lifting. It takes as long as it takes. We should have died in a ditch to defend our position on tuition fees. It was a mistake.”

He is now defending a majority of just 3,435 votes. “Some people were fed up with me and are fed up with me but they say, ‘I’ll give you your dues, Stephen. You stick up for the town and you work like hell for us.’”

That is true. Everyone in our part of town knows where he lives. They see him around all the time. He is never out of the local paper, leading this campaign or that. Trying to save the local hospital, get a faster train service to London or widen the A27. Not with much success, but that has not been his fault.

He made a boob by posing for a selfie grinning in front of the burning pier and posting it online. (An aide insisted he wasn’t really grinning; his face just looks like that sometimes.) But even as the smoke was still rising, Mr Lloyd was beginning to get the pier owners and the council working together, starting a fundraising effort for those who had lost their jobs and doing interview after interview with camera crews from Tokyo to Tunbridge Wells to say this tourist town was still open for business.

That was his finest hour, and he certainly knows it.

“Because we pulled together, the town feels good,” he says. “That’s not an accident, Cole. That was my leadership. It was my drive and my absolute total crystal clarity that if I lose this one [by mishandling the interviews], then within 12 hours we have a victim status, which takes 20 years to get out of. I’m proud of that. I’m proud of the town.”

There was a tragedy when one of the demolition workers lost his life, but overall the reaction to the fire has been a good news story. The pier is being rebuilt from the insurance money, and, frankly, it needed to be anyway.

Not surprisingly, the Conservatives seized on the chance to make a good impression. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor came down together to announce a £2m rescue package for the town, although that money has yet to arrive properly and seems, weirdly, to be destined for a marketing drive, a new café and more Christmas lights.

Minister after minister has come to visit. Theresa May, the Home Secretary, was the latest one, a fortnight ago.

Theresa May is one of many visitors to the constituency

The Conservatives have produced impressive campaign materials and seem willing to spend a fortune to win back the seat. More to the point, they have a terrific candidate.

Caroline Ansell is a local teacher and school inspector in her forties, who is eloquent, personable and clearly knows and loves the town. “I am as local as Eastbourne rock,” she told a hustings I chaired at the Grand Hotel on Thursday, and she went down well. I sent her a note afterwards suggesting a less gentle conversation with her rival in front of an audience in a local pub, wondering if her handlers from Conservative HQ would allow such a thing. She has yet to reply.

“They’ve got the money. We’ve got the people,” says Mr Lloyd, who is getting very little help from his party headquarters. They are fighting fires elsewhere. On the other hand, Lib Dems are great grass-roots campaigners. That may save a surprising number of their MPs, along with the respect they have earned from their constituents.

Stephen Lloyd was born in Mombassa to a father who was in shipping, and had decades in business before a bout of late-night despair at the politicians on Newsnight made him decide it was time to have a go himself. Frankly, he is as good a constituency MP as I have seen in a lifetime of writing about politicians. But I still won’t tell him how I am going to vote.

“Your missus said yes to a Vote Lloyd board, so shut the hell up,” he says with brutal good humour. No, she didn’t, I say. Her memory of the encounter with his team differs. “Well, that is what they heard.”

Well, they must be desperate, then. Every vote will matter in our town, as it will in every place in the country where an MP is having to work hard to prove he can be trusted. Nobody can tell what will happen, even in the two-horse races.

“I think I will win but I think it will be on the back of about 12 votes,” says Stephen Lloyd. “So you take a deep bloody swallow and vote for me.”

Curriculum vitae

1957 Born Mombasa, Kenya, to parents John and Nuala.

1965 Family returns to England. Stephen attends St George’s College, Weybridge, Surrey.

2001 Unsuccessful attempt to take Beaconsfield for Lib Dems, losing to Dominic Grieve.

2010 Elected for Eastbourne and Willingdon, having first contested the seat in 2005.

2012 Appointed Lib Dem spokesman on Northern Ireland.

2014 Appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary to Energy and Climate Secretary Ed Davey. Resigns same year over a failure to improve the A27 road in his constituency.

2015 Campaigns for visas so that the Zimbabwean relatives of five-year-old Andrea Gada can attend her funeral after her death in a road accident.

Alice Harrold

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