If the Liberal Democrats are to fulfil their rhetoric as the “real opposition” to Theresa May after the general election, this is where they need to win – Remain-leaning south-west London.
Vince Cable and Ed Davey, both former Cabinet ministers, were swept out of Parliament along with dozens of their colleagues in 2015 and have seized upon the possibility of hard Brexit as the way back in.
Voters in their constituencies, Twickenham, and Kingston and Surbiton favoured Remain in the referendum last June and one pollster told The Independent: “If they’re going to win any kind of seats back it needs to be in those kinds of constituencies.”
Joe Twyman, head of political and social research at YouGov, added: “If they’re not doing better in constituencies like that, then goodness only knows where they’re doing better.”
Nationally, however, the polls do not put the party much higher than they did two years ago and Mr Twyman said a hoped-for realignment of voter sentiment over Brexit “doesn’t appear to have happened”. Combined, about two thirds of people either voted Leave in the first place, or support the Government in implementing the referendum result.
Nonetheless, the Lib Dems see a “gap in the market”, and the anti-hard Brexit message may yet work “on an individual constituency level, constituencies like Cambridge, Bath, Twickenham,” Mr Twyman said.
The Thames-side constituencies are both largely prosperous areas that, although featuring pockets of relative deprivation, have high house prices and good schools. They have some of the lowest levels of crime in London, and border affluent areas of north Surrey.
Sir Vince said he was “cautiously optimistic” of beating the 2,017-vote majority the Conservative Tania Mathias won over him last time.
He does not even need Remain-voting Conservatives to vote for him, he told The Independent, though he would like them to, if enough Labour and Green supporters are on side. And he said core Lib Dem voters who wavered in 2015 over the Coalition’s record are now more staunchly in his corner.
“There are quite a few former Tories who are quite angry and are switching to us. But others are not sure what to do. The absolutely key people for us are the people who are Labour-inclined,” he said.
“We’ve had two years of Conservative government. People have seen what it means, the difference between what went before. Where Conservatives are coming over, it’s around things like school cuts and the state of the NHS. There’s an element of buyer’s remorse.”
Out on the campaign trail in Twickenham last week, one woman who had previously voted Conservative did indeed tell The Independent she thought Ms May needed a strong opposition, and that she could not get behind Jeremy Corbyn. The Prime Minister was not visible enough to the public and should also participate in TV debates, she said.
Another resident in the leafy former council estate near Fulwell train station made a point of discussing a local school that had written to parents asking for donations to boost its funding.
Sir Vince believes Dr Mathias’ Remain vote and rebellion against the Government on EU workers will not weaken his message because the new MP also voted for Article 50, and appears alongside the Prime Minister in publicity materials. “It does link her to the extreme form of Brexit that Theresa May is pursuing.”
Dr Mathias sounded baffled when this was put to her. She said: “It’s saying I can work with Theresa, and she listens. I’m a team player.”
The former NHS doctor said that for Remainers, losing the referendum was “like bereavement”. She said: “It’s not always the issue people come up with on the doorstep. But where they have it’s obviously because they’re Remain. I’m standing there saying, ‘Yes, I’m Remain, but I’m wanting to now work with Government to get the best deal for us.’” She said one woman told her she seemed to have moved on from the vote. “I have had to go through all those emotions,” Dr Mathias said.
She said her Brexit pitch centres on what she has already done, like taking business leaders to meet ministers and contributing to a forward-looking science and technology committee report, as well as the future. “I still want us to be European but I do accept where we are, and I don’t want division.”
On school funding and the NHS, her message is simple, Dr Mathias said. She has lobbied for more money or ringfenced budgets and would continue to do so – and if the leader of her party is Prime Minister, “who do you think is going to be talking to the ministers? I can effect change.” A former primary school governor, she has argued for more financial training for governing bodies.
Lord Dholakia, the deputy leader of the Lib Dems in the House of Lords, told The Independent during the canvassing session: “We’re not only counting on Labour supporters coming up, but also that the young people and people who voted to remain in Europe will tip the balance this time. They will realise that they’ve lost a future.”
In addition, Sir Vince believes the Tories’ absorption of Ukip voters in the recent local election will scare away the party’s more moderate backers. Whether it will happen in time to do him any good is unclear.
“They’ve taken over the Tory party. It’s made their result look better so they get a win, good headlines, but deep down if you’re a sensible, middle-of-the-road Conservative voter, you must worry about what will happen with all the values and voters of Ukip being transferred across. In the long run this will do them a lot of harm,” he said.
The “Ukip approach” – “you have to get behind Queen Elizabeth, Boudicca, Thatcher, whoever she is” – may be unsuited to Twickenham, Sir Vince added.
Across the river, Sir Ed said he saw similar dynamics at work. He said core support was “hardening up. It’s not just in terms of what they’re telling us on the doorstep, it’s about members.” Local party membership has doubled to 900 since 2015, he claimed. And he said Labour voters were defecting “in larger numbers than I can remember”.
On Brexit, he believes voters will want the “experience of people who have negotiated in Europe like Vince Cable and myself”.
On Monday, ICM Unlimited’s polling put the Tories ahead of Labour nationally by 22 points, a record in the company’s books. The Lib Dems sat at nine per cent support.
Director Martin Boon told The Independent: “The Tories are hoovering up voters from left, right and centre.
“We’ve got a bunch of polls now putting the Lib Dems on the same sort of vote share nationally, eight to 10 per cent, that they got at the last general election. They’re facing an uphill battle as things stand.”
The party will “really need to work it on the doorstep” if it is to regain seats in “what would be considered natural territory”, he said. And the so-called progressive alliance did not appear to be materialising in the polls, he added.
After embarrassing recordings leaked of Sir Vince, along with Richmond Park and North Kingston candidate Sarah Olney, suggesting the Lib Dems put up paper candidates in some seats, the former Business Secretary accused Mr Corbyn of making a formal progressive alliance “impossible” because of his leadership.
For their part, the Greens have already pulled out of the races in Twickenham and Richmond Park. While that may free up some votes for the Lib Dems, the appetite for tactical voting is hard to quantify because of a lack of constituency-level polling.
Mr Boon said: “The electorates in south-west London are probably more engaged than most. There will be a better chance of it happening around there but it’s difficult to say what’s going to happen when the evidence isn’t really there to extrapolate.”
James Berry, the Conservative who unseated Sir Ed by turning a 7,560 Lib Dem majority into a 2,834-vote lead of his own, said he had “no doubt” the race would be close. He attacked his predecessor for a “divisive” campaign “essentially targeting Remain voters and trying to reopen the divisions of the referendum”.
“A lot of people very definitely don’t want to do that,” he said. “The majority of people who voted Remain accept the fact that the referendum was clearly conducted on the basis the result would be accepted either way.”
He added: “We’re also seeing Labour voters supporting Theresa May and the Conservatives for the first time this election, because they think she’s a strong leader.” And the only way Sir Ed would be able to use his international negotiating experience as an MP would be “in a government with the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn” or as a backbencher “in a minor party with no voice in government,” he said.
The Lib Dems have been a strong presence in this part of London for some years, but their influence appears to have waned. The 1997 election delivered Sirs Vince and Sir Ed into Parliament, alongside Jenny Tonge in Richmond Park. The latter seat was wrenched away in 2010, when Zac Goldsmith beat Ms Tonge’s successor Susan Kramer. Kingston Council was yellow for 12 years before the Tories re-took power in 2014, and the Lib Dems had enjoyed a term in charge in Richmond from 2006 until 2010.
Mr Goldsmith was unseated by Ms Olney last year, however, when he stood as an independent after stepping down over Heathrow expansion. Her success offered some hope for Sir Ed, the former Energy Secretary said, as did a Kingston Council ward byelection victory in 2015.
Ms Olney made Brexit a central theme of her campaign, and her party has included a second referendum on the divorce deal as part of its manifesto. It is difficult to tell whether that will be the difference in this part of London but for the Lib Dems the national polls may not offer much encouragement.
Sir Vince readily admitted that “we clearly need to rebuild our base because it was badly damaged” in 2015 – and he set a quick pace around the streets of his old constituency as he hunted out the faithful and those willing to be converted.
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