A veil of uncertainty hangs over the market town of Honiton in Devon just days before a testy by-election, as Liberal Democrat activists throw everything into a final push to flip the traditional Conservative constituency in their favour.
The ballot in Tiverton and Honiton, together with the by-election in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, will be the first major test for Prime Minister Boris Johnson since more than 40 per cent of his own MPs refused to back him in a vote of confidence earlier this month. The worse-than-expected result came on the back of a series of scandals that have hammered the Tories.
The resignation of the constituency’s Tory MP Neil Parish — after he was seen watching pornography on a phone in the House of Commons — weighs heavy on the minds of locals. At least half a dozen Honiton voters who had historically been fiercely loyal to the Tories told The National that recent upsets had left them disillusioned with the party and they had decided or were considering voting differently this time around.
Lib Dem candidate Richard Foord lambasted Mr Johnson’s government for being “bent on breaking international law”, referring to the administration’s plan to scrap parts of the post-Brexit deal for Northern Ireland. In an interview with The National, the former soldier said the Lib Dems wanted to improve Britain’s relationship with Brussels — but sidestepped questions on the party’s stated aim to reverse Brexit.
Some voters in the Brexit-backing constituency said the Lib Dems’ vision to take the UK back into the EU was a major turn-off. Mr Foord was coy about the party’s stance on the contentious issue.
“In the longer term the UK really has to get on better with the EU,” he said.
“We’ve seen over the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol that this government is bent on breaking international law and is getting on very badly with our neighbours.
“So we’ve got a hell of a lot of mending to do before we even concentrate on a future relationship. I think those things are very long-term, and right now is not what I’m hearing people are interested [in]. People are much more interested in repairing relations so as to get our economy moving again."
Mr Foord said he would like to see an end to the “botched international trade deals” struck by the UK and its allies after Brexit, singling out a trade treaty with Australia as a particularly poor agreement for British farmers. Members of the agriculture sector are facing growing uncertainty over their livelihoods, as the war in Ukraine drives up the cost of fertiliser and food.
“I met a farmer who was the 17th generation in his family to farm here,” Mr Foord said after speaking to local voters on a walkabout. “He was concerned that he would not be able to hand on that farm to the next generation due to financial hardship.”
The constituency of Tiverton and Honiton in south-west England is made up of a cluster of villages and market towns surrounded by farming country.
Unlike Wakefield, which was one of the former Labour safe seats that fell to the Tories in the 2019 general election for the first time in decades, the loss of Tiverton and Honiton would be a major blow to the prime minister. If the Lib Dems manage to overturn the Tories’ hefty majority of 24,239 in the usually safe seat it could be the final blow to Mr Johnson’s position.
Mr Foord, who is the bookmakers' favourite to win, said if the Tories lost the seat it would make Mr Johnson’s position untenable.
“It could be close but we are also feeling that there is some momentum moving away from the Conservatives and towards the Liberal Democrats as we approach the election,” he said.
The aspiring MP trained at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and served in the British Army before making a bid for Parliament. Mr Foord highlighted the “real parallels between military service and public service” and said his past experience would stand him in good stead if he were to win.
“In a similar way I think an MP can sometimes help members of his community by working very hard for them and that’s what I would intend to do as an MP around here,” he said.
The Lib Dems’ campaign office in Honiton’s high street was bustling with activity on Monday, as volunteers of all ages filed in to sign up to campaign.
The Conservatives’ campaign site down the street was shut, and people said there had been no sign of the party’s candidate Helen Hurford in recent days and weeks.
Linda Hoare, a Lib Dem councillor from Leeds, called to the town on her way to this week's Glastonbury music festival to hang up party posters. She said the “buzz” around Honiton reminded her of the atmosphere in North Shropshire last year before the Lib Dems scooped the seat from the Tories.
Tory voters abandoning Boris Johnson
Karen Poucher, 64, a sales assistant at a leather store in the town centre, was among the lifelong Tory voters who told The National they had reservations about backing the party this time around.
She admitted the scandal which forced her former MP to resign had damaged her trust in the Tories “a lot”. But after briefly considering giving her support to the Lib Dems, she was turned off by the party’s vision to take the UK back into the EU and decided to vote for the Tory candidate.
“I am usually Conservative [but] because of the complete mess of Neil Parish, and how inappropriate it was, I was going to vote Liberal Democrat,” she said. “But I understand, having looked into it, the Liberal Democrats want to go back into the EU.
“I thought, ‘oh let’s not go through that again, there’s enough problems going on everywhere without that happening.’
“I am backtracking in my head and I have looked at the Conservative [candidate] and I will be voting for her.”
Valerie Carter, 79, who has voted for the Conservatives since she was 18, said she was “infuriated” by Mr Johnson and aides breaking Covid-19 lockdown rules.
Her plans for a family reunion during Christmas 2020 were thwarted by Mr Johnson’s last-minute about-turn on banning mixing of households. A year and a half on, it still lingers for her.
“He is arrogant,” she said of the prime minister.
But despite her frustration, she said she would back the Tories on Thursday, and accused the Lib Dems of “going overboard” with their campaign.
Kim, a mother-of-three who works as a sales assistant, said she was on the fence with just days to go before casting her vote. Having supported the Conservative party since her youth, she said the cost-of-living crisis was causing her to question her support for the ruling party.
She said she had received a lot of campaign leaflets through her letterbox with leaflets, “most of it from the Lib Dems”.
“There’s a lot to think about. People are struggling with the cost-of-living, fuel prices. We live in a housing association, so with Boris saying that he plans to open up buying your own home if you’re a housing association tenant that is good.”
Holly Keightley, a barmaid, said she was so disgruntled with politics she would not be voting.
“I try and stay out of it,” she said. “I don’t see the point in it.”
Pensioner Patrick, 81, said he was planning to use his vote as a protest against the Tories after decades of backing them.
“I will vote for an independent who has no chance of winning,” he said.