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Witney byelection: hard Brexit may be key issue in Cameron's former constituency

October 12, 2016 12:31 PM
By Jessica Elgot in The Guardian

Liz LeffmanLib Dems hope to capitalise on EU exit concerns in Cotswold constituency which chalked up a strong remain vote on 23 June

Once they exchanged jokes in the Downing Street rose garden, but now Nick Clegg is trudging the Oxfordshire lanes of his former boss's constituency - not exactly in the hope of taking the seat from his Conservative successor but in an attempt to come second.

Campaigning in Witney, where a byelection to replace Cameron is in full swing, the one-time deputy prime minister is leading activists in the hope that a solid result could herald the beginning of the so-far elusive Liberal Democrat revival.

Among a cluster of voters on the town's main thoroughfare, opposite the awnings of the Blue Boar pub, Clegg was full of praise for his former coalition partner, and derision for Theresa May. "She is only where she's at because he led the party to an election victory last year - but there isn't a single word of recognition or debt she owes them," he said. "She tramples over his domestic policy but is also lurching towards a hard Brexit."

Cameron would be horrified at the prospect of a hard Brexit, Clegg has said, touring the former prime minister's home seat of Witney where the Sheffield Hallam MP's party hopes to capitalise on concerns in the Cotswolds over a hard Brexit.

"You could absolutely see why people in a place like this would vote for David Cameron's Conservatives," Clegg said. "I suspect he would be mortified by what is happening, and by a Tory party leader behaving very gracelessly towards him."

Few in the party still carry a torch for the coalition years, but the enduring popularity of Cameron in this corner of Oxfordshire is something that the Lib Dems feel they might be able to capitalise on. The party is throwing vast resources into next Thursday's byelection, shipping down legions of activists - 600 over the weekend and another 1,000 over the next week, according to party officials.

Liz Leffman, the Lib Dem candidate collecting signatures by the Cotswolds Kids clothing shop, sees Brexit as being on the ballot paper for this fight. Leffman's day job is in imports from clothing factories in eastern Europe, a business which would be directly affected by Brexit. Her Conservative rival, Robert Courts, a local councillor and barrister, is a Brexiter.

"This is such a pivotal election, I think the Conservatives believe they don't have to do very much," Leffman said. "But people feel let down by him, they weren't expecting him to go. This is a very educated population here, and they are very worried. The Tory party conference saw a lot of rhetoric that people here have not been comfortable with. I think that's changing the way people will vote."

The constituency chalked up a strong remain vote in the EU referendum, and the business classes, professionals and academics who live in the town are broadly liberal.

With a display of fervour rarely seen in these quiet Cotswold streets, one of the party's newest activists, Jake Acock, took his Green party membership card and ceremoniously tore it up in front of the Green party stall and local TV cameras, before being tackled by disgruntled Greens.

The Greens' candidate, Larry Sanders, has been drawing his fair share of attention too, being the brother of US Democrat Bernie Sanders, though he does admit he had more recognition from locals in Oxford, where he lives, than in the shires. He too is optimistic about cutting into the Conservative lead. "At the hustings last night was the first time I heard in British politics - and in Witney too - the Conservative candidate booed, when he was talking about the NHS," he said. "It is cutting through."

The Conservatives' lead looks unassailable: Cameron took home a 25,000 majority in 2015. Change does not come quickly in Witney however, even if some voters have concerns about the direction of the new regime. "We need to stay stable and keep change to a minimum until Brexit is all sorted out," said former hotelier Ian Watkins as he passed the Greens' stand on the high street. "I think May is doing a good job at the moment, I can't see anyone doing anything any better to be honest."

"People felt very comfortable with Cameron, and as someone who is more liberal than Conservative, I couldn't complain," said Jackie Moss, who works at a local pre-school. "I will miss him. I think it's pretty much a cert but I am hoping that the Liberals do better now."

Matthew Spindlow, a local painter and decorator, is one of the few to criticise the town's former MP. "I'm a Farage man," he laughed. "But there's a lot of toffs round here, I reckon they'll get in again because of that."

Though even Clegg will admit victory is "a mountain to climb", a close second, up from fourth in 2015, would help the Lib Dems test their messaging to Tory voters in preparation for seats they might be more able to win, particularly in the south-west, though the polls for the party nationally remain at a stubborn and desultory 8%.

"I think a lot of people here, who are traditional mainstream Conservative voters, don't want a hard Brexit," Clegg said. "And so the byelection does assume a bigger importance: it's one of the ways in the strange political environment we are in now, that the public can now say that the government is embarking on a direction of travel with which we don't agree. Coming a good second, given where we were last May, would do that."