Why is Phillip Lee, the Tory-turned-Liberal Democrat MP for Bracknell in Berkshire, standing next door in Wokingham at the next general election?
To see Lee seek election in a new seat, as other defectors have, is no surprise: his new party finished a poor third and some 28,000 votes behind the Conservatives in Bracknell in 2017. The local authority area broke for Leave, and the constituency is estimated to have done so, too. It makes sense for him to seek a more straightforward route to re-election.
But his chosen alternative – the hitherto true-blue home of arch-Eurosceptic John Redwood – begs a one-word question: why?
On paper, Wokingham is only marginally more hospitable territory than Bracknell. Yes, it returned a clear majority – 56 per cent – for Remain in 2016. But there, too, the Liberal Democrats came a poor third in 2017, some 24,000 votes behind Redwood.
Even accounting for the strong Lib Dem showing in May’s local elections, it is a big ask (and, as many a veteran of the party’s campaigns will tell you, local success does not always an MP make). The closest the party has ever come to beating Redwood was in 2001, when it slashed his majority to 5,994. For Lee to finish the job, it would take a humongous, if not implausible swing.
So why the confidence? The answer lies in the party’s internal polling, which has it in a very strong position (one source says above 30 per cent) in constituencies like Redwood’s: Home Counties and Greater London seats with big graduate and professional populations. The upshot is that the party believes a swathe of seats in Oxfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Surrey, the M4 corridor and south-west London are now in play – as long as Brexit is delayed and Conservative incumbents bleed votes to the Brexit Party.
That Lee has plumped to stand in Wokingham rather than a notionally easier target shows just how much purchase that thinking has at the highest levels of the party. But the fact that sights have been set so high will alarm some of those who remember the heights of Cleggmania, and the net loss of seats that followed that ambitious campaign in 2010.