As prime ministerial candidates Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak clashed in their hustings in Eastbourne on Friday night they were not treading on as firm Conservative Party territory as they would like to hope.
Amid the blasted earth of departing Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s leadership, plagued by scandal, there are yellow Liberal Democrat party buds growing that appear more resilient than the Conservative blue.
The Lib Dems have won the Eastbourne constituency three times since 1990 and, under the candidacy of the charismatic “doer” Josh Babarinde, they have a strong chance of again reaping gains from Tory misery.
The seat is 12th on the Lib Dem target list, suggesting that if they take it whenever the next general election is called, the swing against the Conservatives will be such that they will be out of government.
The economy and the cost of living were once again central to a hustings in the town on Friday night that came a day after the Bank of England warned the UK faced an outright recession and 13 per cent inflation later this year.
Former chancellor Mr Sunak said that unless inflation gets under control, there is “no hope” the Tories will win the next election, while Ms Truss said the UK must not talk itself into a recession.
Taking a thinly-veiled swipe at his opponent, Mr Sunak told Tory members he is “particularly worried about policies that risk making it (inflation) worse and last longer”. Ms Truss retorted that “forecasts are not destiny”.
MP in waiting?
Young, fresh and intelligent, Mr Babarinde possesses one of those qualities politicians hanker for in that he is genuine and has a long legacy of doing things for the right reasons.
That quality was recognised by Queen Elizabeth II in 2020 when he was awarded the Order of the British Empire for his efforts in keeping young offenders and ex-gang members out of jail and in employment through the charity he founded, Cracked It, which teaches people to fix iPhones.
But Mr Babarinde’s OBE did not end up gathering dust on a shelf. As part of his plan for inspiring young people, he takes it on a roadshow to local schools telling pupils that they too have the potential for success.
Hard work is part of that ethos, as demonstrated by his four A* at A-Level and degree from the London School of Economics.
“I've known Josh since he was 16 when he was a head of school,” said local Lib Dem leader David Tutt. “The first time I heard him speak, I thought my goodness, here's someone who's got a really good future ahead of them.”
Eulogies aside, Mr Babarinde is quietly confident that he will take the seat, becoming the first Liberal Democrat of black heritage elected to parliament.
“The Tories have been spending so much time in-fighting that they are distracted from that reality,” he told The National.
“They covered for Boris Johnson's totally reckless behaviour, his lies and were complicit in them through their defence. They're not alive to what people are going through now with their really slow response to the cost of living emergency.”
The Lib Dems found it curious that the Conservatives chose Eastbourne for Friday night’s husting, given the number of defections from the Tories of late.
Councillor Kathy Ballard was an early convert when in 2019 she found her politics was more in alignment with the Lib Dems despite being a strong Brexiteer.
She had been inspired to join the Conservatives by the leadership of former prime minister David Cameron but now sees a very different party.
“I think it's got into a terrible state under Boris Johnson clearly lying and breaking his own laws," she told The National. "He's really destroyed the reputation of the Conservative Party and the fact that MPs supported him for so long tarnishes the whole party.”
A week before the first Cabinet minister resigned last month, Cllr Tony Freebody also felt he could no longer remain a Conservative.
“I couldn’t continue to be part of a party which does not reflect my values,” he said. “It is purely because of what is happening at a national level.”
According to Mr Tutt, it is the toxicity caused by the scandals over Mr Johnson’s government that is leading to increasing defections.
“The Tories are extremely unpopular at the moment,” he said. “We're seeing people who have been Conservatives for as long as I can remember. saying I will never vote for them again. It's not so much the policies, but the feeling that they can't trust them.
Liz or Rishi?
Former government employee Helen, a Conservative member who has a vote in the election, said she would go for Ms Truss “because she's the most loyal of the two” and “I think she’ll do exceptionally well”.
She had little time for Mr Sunak. “He stabbed Boris in the back, he’s disloyal and if I hear one more time about him helping in his mother's pharmacy shop I'll go mad.”
Ultimately, she would vote for Mr Johnson — if his name was on the ballot.
Reflecting polling that suggests Lib Dem waverers would prefer Mr Sunak, Mr Tutt hopes Liz Truss will win as “we will make more advances quicker with her as prime minister…but I've not really any time for either”.
Mr Babarinde believed that both candidates were “saying what they need to say, to get votes which is exactly what Boris Johnson did and look where we ended up with that”.
Former Conservative Kathy Ballard did not think either would be “able to reverse the reputation that the Tory party has gained under Boris Johnson's legacy”.
But the Lib Dems ability to overturn Tory MP Caroline Ansell 4,331 majority is by no means a certainty, with true blue stalwarts still evident in the town.
“I’ll vote Conservative of course and I’d like to think it would be Rishi as PM but unfortunately there's already controversy against him,” said local resident Michael Lopez, 58.
Tom and Penny
A number of politicians and voters lamented the two candidates on offer.
Despite being a Lib Dem, Mr Tutt thought that “from the country's point of view” he would have wanted to see Tom Tugendhat as a leadership candidate.
“I think he's a very honourable man and would have made a real difference.”
Tory member Helen, thought Penny Mordaunt would have made the better candidates as “she knew what she was talking about on taxes and looking after the poor” and she was “a strong woman”.
Cost of living crisis
The discontent in Eastbourne over spiralling energy and food prices ― soon to be joined by higher mortgage costs ― is going to affect the Tory vote after 12 years in office.
The seaside town with a large retirement population has Britain’s largest food bank for the impoverished, according to Mr Babarinde, who was born in Eastbourne.
“It breaks my heart that my town finds itself in that position,” he said. “I speak to folks who don't know how they're going to put food on the table for their kids, who are skipping meals themselves so their children eat. There was one lady pensioner in particular, who I'll never forget who said ‘I’m going to have to sell my wedding ring to pay the bills’. This is someone who lost her husband and her wedding ring is all she has left.”
With a deep recession predicted for Britain, the one consolation of a leadership election is the open debates where ideas are devised and debated.
Perhaps by the rigorous arguments aired in Eastbourne tonight Ms Truss or Mr Sunak can devise a plan to save their coming leadership and the country.