Maria Hutchings, the Tories' Sarah Palin, is a sign of things to come

The new generation of Conservative MPs and candidates are more socially conservative than their predecessors.

David Cameron finds himself supporting a candidate in the Eastleigh by-election who disagrees with him on Equal Marriage, on membership of the EU and who has some pretty extreme views on immigration and abortion. Meanwhile, right-wing commentators call on the party to wake up and get behind their 'modernising' leader.

But in fact, the evidence is that the latest brand of Tory MPs have more in common with Maria Hutchings, "the Sarah Palin of the south coast" as one person referred to her the other day, than they do with the leader of the Tory party.

Blogger Mark Thompson did an excellent analysis of how Tory MPs voted in the Equal Marriage debate and discovered that the 2010 intake were more likely to have voted against the proposal than the 2001/2005 intake. There has, I think, been a tendency to imagine that the Conservative vote was split on age grounds and it is true that Tory MPs elected in the 1980s or 90s were the most likely to vote against. But the fact that the 2010 intake are more socially conservative than their immediate predecessors rather suggests Hutchings is increasingly the rule, rather than the exception.

Under the microscope of a by-election, Tory high command can control their candidate's media appearances and her expression of ‘unfortunate’ views – witness the unsuccessful attempts of the BBC's Norman Smith to interview Hutchings last Sunday - but as Conservative constituency associations select more and more candidates in the same mould (especially where they fear the effect of UKIP on their vote), it's going to be harder and harder to hide their opinions from scrutiny.

It’s easy to forget where the Tory party is heading, as the moderating influence of the Lib Dems prevents them doing all they would want. But as the Tea Party tendency takes over in the Tories, so the centre-ground opens up. Eastleigh will be a great test for both the Liberal Democrats and Labour of whether they can take advantage of this political vacuum.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Liberal Democrat Conference.

Maria Hutchings, the Conservative candidate for the Eastleigh by-election, and David Cameron at the headquarters for B&Q in the constituency. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.