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The Liberal Democrats are hoping for a resurgence in their former heartlands of south-west England, but those plans are at risk of being thwarted by the UK Independence party’s tactics and its effort to ensure nothing derails Brexit.
Ukip has pulled out of contesting three key seats in Somerset so that they hope Conservative candidates will triumph and keep the Lib Dems out of a region that voted overwhelmingly for the Tories in 2015 and Leave in the Brexit referendum.
Lynton Crosby, the Conservatives’ campaign chief, produced polling before the snap election was called suggesting the Lib Dems could win back many of the West Country seats they lost in the 2015 wipeout. Since then, though, the mood has changed.
Tory MPs report that since Theresa May announced the June 8 vote, public support for the prime minister appears to have solidified. “I was worried when she called the election, but I’m much more confident now,” said one.
Lib Dems admit Mrs May is playing well with voters — one strategist said she was seen as “Thatcher in kitten heels” — and warn that results in next week’s local council elections may not be as encouraging as they had hoped.
Paddy Ashdown, former Lib Dem Yeovil MP, said the party he used to lead had to take a far tougher approach towards Mrs May, who he claimed was leading Britain to a hard Brexit and who had a dismal civil liberties record. “We should put up posters saying: ‘You can’t trust this person with a big majority’,” Lord Ashdown said.
Across the region, the Lib Dems are gearing up for what will be a difficult fight to present themselves as an “effective opposition” to the Tories.
A Lib Dem comeback in the south-west has been widely debated as one of the wild cards in the 2017 election — the one significant threat to the Conservatives in an otherwise benign political landscape. But in seats such as Wells in Somerset, the local candidate Tessa Munt admits: “It’s going to be tough.”
A bundle of energy in sturdy boots and black quilted jacket, she is looking to win back the seat that she lost to the Conservatives in 2015. But Helen Hims, Ukip’s Somerset chair, recently announced that her party will not contest either Wells or Yeovil — or the safer Tory seat of Somerton & Frome — so as not to split the pro-Brexit vote and thus keep the Lib Dems out.
“The south-west is the Lib Dems absolute priority,” Mrs Hims said. “This region is a special case. We are being targeted quite heavily by the Remain side and we are at risk of letting the Lib Dems in.”
(If there is a flaw in Ukip’s stance, it is that local Tory MP James Heappey backed the Remain side in the EU referendum).
While Ms Munt admits the Ukip move “makes the maths more interesting”, she believes the Lib Dems will pick up former Ukip voters. For his part, Mr Heappey concedes that a typical West Country “protest vote” could easily return to the Lib Dems.
Regardless of Ukip’s tactics, the Lib Dems in the south-west have a fundamental problem: virtually every seat in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset voted Leave, barring the university city of Exeter and a handful of wealthy rural pockets.
Ms Munt is doing what Lib Dems always do in such circumstances — becoming a political chameleon. Many of her posters are red (“a printing error”, she claims) while leaflets have a heavy green or blue tone. In other words, she is fishing for votes in many political pools.
Adrian Griffiths, a 50-year-old builder living near Wells Cathedral, is the kind of voter who gives the Lib Dems hope. He voted for Brexit last year but is now more concerned about low wages and high housing costs. “We’ve done the Brexit,” he says. “I can’t see there being any backsliding.”
Ms Munt deploys Brexit as an issue with caution in a seat that voted 53-47 to leave the EU. While Europe plays strongly in metropolitan Lib Dem target seats such as Kingston or Twickenham, here Ms Munt tells Leave voters only that a Lib Dem vote will provide effective scrutiny of Mrs May as she negotiates with the EU on the terms of Britain’s departure.
She reassures Remain voters that the Lib Dems will demand a public vote on a final Brexit deal but stops short of saying the party will seek to reverse it.
In Wells, England’s smallest city, Brexit is not high on the list of voters’ concerns. Hayley Broadbent has just quit her job as a geography teacher citing excessive pressure on schools and is voting Lib Dem. “The Conservatives are ruining the education system,” she says.
But a recurring theme is the popularity of Mrs May, and Lib Dems have yet to find a way of overcoming it. “I think she’s doing a good job,” says Jane, a housewife. “She’s very calm, she doesn’t bow to pressure. She steadily goes about her business.”
The “May factor” is so far the defining feature of this election campaign, relentlessly promoted by Sir Lynton. If it can crush Labour in the north, it might equally lay waste to Lib Dem dreams in the West Country.