Lib Dems hopeful of Witney by-election boost

Arjun Neil
Wednesday 19 October 2016 15:26
Mr Farron himself promised to spend much of month running up to the election in Witney
Mr Farron himself promised to spend much of month running up to the election in Witney

The Liberal Democrats remain confident hopes of pushing the Conservatives close in the by-election for David Cameron’s former constituency of Witney, despite the incumbent party’s seemingly unassailable position.

Liz Leffman, a councillor in West Oxfordshire, is the Lib Dem candidate. She won her council seat with 65 per cent of the vote in 2016, when the Tories came in second place with 22 points.

She contested the parliamentary seat of Witney in 2005, coming second to David Cameron with the highest ever share of the vote for both the Lib Dems and any opposition party.

The Oxfordshire constituency has been a safe Conservative seat since its creation in 1983. It was fleetingly a Labour seat, when former MP Shaun Woodward defected from the Tories to the Labour Party in 1999, until it was retaken in 2001 by David Cameron.

Now, the Conservatives have fielded councillor and barrister Robert Courts to replace the former prime minister, but with lesser name recognition and lower turnout he is unlikely to do as well as Mr Cameron.

In normal circumstances, the Conservatives would be expected to easily hold the seat, given their 25,000-vote majority at the last election. However, the Tory government’s determination to take Britain out of the European Union is a direction emphatically opposed by many residents of relatively affluent and well-educated West Oxfordshire.

A total of 57 per cent of voters - likely higher in the town of Witney - voted to remain part of the bloc, making Oxfordshire the most pro-EU county in England.

It is considered unlikely Theresa May’s commitment to a ‘hard Brexit’ will resonate among many here, with industry based in the area, including motorsports, dependent on close European cooperation.

The Liberal Democrats under Europhile leader Tim Farron have positioned themselves in the pro-EU centre-ground since the Brexit result.

While their recovery in national polls has been patchy, a spate of council by-election wins since May has given the party hopes of a more substantial recovery.

Given the divisions within the party, Labour candidate Duncan Enright is not expected to improve on the 17 per cent of the vote he achieved in 2015.

Hoping for a good showing for his party, Mr Farron himself promised to spend much of month running up to the election in Witney.

He believes the Lib Dem ground operation is efficient and well-staffed - and is confident of picking up votes from disaffected Europhiles, social liberals and former Conservatives wary of the new direction of the Government.

Witney resident Matilda Pillonel, a law student and former Conservative voter, explained why she would be supporting the Lib Dems.

“I feel let down by the Conservative Government’s poor management of Brexit and their regressive grammar school policy,” she told The Independent.

“I admired the liberal wing of the party, but I’m disillusioned with this sudden lurch to the right under Theresa May.”

The betting markets have responded positively, with the Liberal Democrats odds-on to retake at least second place - from fourth in the General Election.

Lord Ashdown, a former Lib Dem leader, has called for the by-election to be treated as a referendum on the Government’s Brexit course.

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