On a bright, blustery afternoon in East Devon, the Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey is ankle-deep in the River Axe. Davey and his party’s candidate for the Tiverton and Honiton by-election on 23 June, Richard Foord, are here to test phosphate levels in the water. The sight of a party leader frowning at a test tube in a field is classic local political theatre, but it’s an astute piece of campaigning as well. Sewage is a major issue in Devon: South West Water’s customers face the highest bills in England, while the company’s owner, Pennon Group, spends less on capital investment than any of Britain’s other privatised water monopolies. Water quality is significant to two of the area’s biggest industries (tourism and agriculture) but South West Water’s “consistently unacceptable” record, as it has been described by the Environment Agency, includes 42,000 releases of raw sewage into rivers in a single year.
It’s the effluent seeping from Westminster that the Lib Dems are really testing, however. The by-election was called after the Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton, Neil Parish, a local farmer, admitted to viewing pornography twice in the House of Commons chamber and resigned in shame (he claimed to have been searching for images of tractors). With the Wakefield by-election, which will be held on the same day, it will be the first major test of Conservative voters’ loyalty since the Prime Minister was fined for breaching lockdown rules.
At a national level, there are few places more loyal to the Tories in England: Tiverton and Honiton (and the two constituencies that were combined to create the present one) have returned a Conservative MP at every election since the Second World War. Parish’s majority at the 2019 general election was 24,239. In the 2021 local elections, however, more than half of the wards went to independents or the Lib Dems. Twice last year – in Chesham and Amersham in June, and then in North Shropshire in December – the Lib Dems overturned five-figure Conservative majorities. If they win here as well, and Labour recaptures the Red Wall seat of Wakefield, it will challenge the narrative that Boris Johnson is a serial winner and an electoral asset for the Conservatives.
The last time Davey spoke to Keir Starmer was during the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations, when the two were sat together at a church service. Davey told me that there is “no coordination, there’s no deal” between their parties on the two by-elections. It is also true, however, that while almost all of Labour’s front bench have visited Wakefield in the past six weeks, they have yet to appear here. Davey is making multiple trips to Tiverton and Honiton, but currently has no plans to canvass in Wakefield.
“We’ll take on Labour where we think we can win,” Davey told me, explaining that for “rational parties” with limited resources, non-competition is not something that requires a pact (or at least, not yet). The maths, he said, makes formal cooperation unnecessary: the Lib Dems’ 40 target seats are nearly all held by Conservatives, and in every one of the seats they hold outside Scotland, the Tories are in second place.
Davey has served in a coalition before. As a cabinet minister under David Cameron, he was part of the government that imposed a decade of austerity upon Britain, and it was in rural areas such as East Devon that the cuts to public services were most damaging. Now, he says his job is “to win as many Liberal Democrat MPs as I possibly can, and to defeat as many Conservative MPs as I possibly can”.
I grew up in a Devon town very like Tiverton. My dad was a local GP in Newton Abbot and my mum taught in one of the local schools. It was a great place to be a child but I left, as did most of my friends, at the age of 18. Beyond the cities of Exeter and Plymouth, there are too few jobs and too few buses, and yet the cost of living remains high, and in the West Country housing market young people have no chance against retirees and second-home owners who have made their money in wealthier counties.
Devonians have a well-earned reputation for being friendly, but they can also be very private. People tend to live far apart, and almost everyone drives (as a teenager, I had friends in moorland villages that were served by a single daily bus). That so many jobs rely on people from elsewhere – retirees and holidaymakers – builds iron braces of manners and discretion around many interactions. It’s a place in which a great deal can remain unsaid, especially political views. You can walk into a genteel shop and buy a Victorian cow creamer without ever noticing the muskets on the walls.
In Axminster, Honiton and villages across the constituency, some people are happy to wear their politics on their sleeves: Lib Dem placards adorn the windows of houses and shops, but Davey says the Tories, too, are “pouring resources into this constituency in a way we didn’t see in North Shropshire or Chesham and Amersham. It’s become quite a fight.”
The Tories are apparently not beyond striking a low blow: on a constituent’s kitchen table, I pick up a bright yellow leaflet that asks, in distinctive Lib Dem typeface, “Thinking of Voting Liberal Democrat?” and lists a few claimed Lib Dem policies: rejoining the EU, weakening the UK’s borders and shorter sentences for “child murderers and sex offenders”. The small print identifies the leaflet as having been printed on behalf of the Tory candidate, Helen Hurford, who appears to be being kept somewhat under wraps.
Meanwhile, the Tory big guns are being deployed. I saw Rishi Sunak being whisked from the train into a waiting Range Rover, off to visit a vaccine manufacturer in north Devon; and as Davey tested the water in Axminster, Johnson was at a nearby farm. The visit was confirmed late and no media was invited, but a source tells me that it was only after pressure from the National Farmers’ Union that Minette Batters, the union’s president, was able to join a table with Johnson. There was little time for questions, and Hurford, who is reportedly not well known to local farmers, reportedly said little.
The agricultural sector is a major employer in the area and fundamental to Devon’s identity. Parish, who was chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, is liked by farmers, mainly because he helped to hold the government to account on their behalf. Justin Bartley, who has a beef herd and cider orchards, says a “perfect storm” of rising costs, from fertiliser to labour, has arrived just as EU subsidies are being phased out. (Tiverton and Honiton voted 57.8 per cent for Leave, although support for Brexit was lower among farmers at 53 per cent, according to polls by Farmers Weekly.)
The Basic Payment Scheme that has supported farmers since 2015 will be largely gone by the next election, probably in 2024, to be replaced by the post-Brexit Environmental Land Management Scheme, which focuses more on environmental stewardship than food production. New subsidies such as Countryside Stewardship grants and the Sustainable Farming Incentive are demanding and complicated, according to Bartley. “You’ve got to be perfect environmental stewards of your land… the absolute idyllic version of farming.” Farmers are required to record the exact number of livestock in every field. “There’s a lot more paperwork, and the payment rates are inadequate,” he said.
At the same time, the UK is signing trade deals that could allow for an influx of cheaper, lower-welfare imports. Bartley said there is widespread “mistrust” of these policies, which appear rushed and based more on making Brexit appear a success. “There’s a lack of a plan, there’s a lack of clarity.”
Among the more effective interventions made by the Lib Dems in the campaign was the revelation that Mid Devon has the longest waiting time for category one (the most serious) ambulance calls in the country. Tiverton and Honiton has a median age of just under 50, and more than one-third of Honiton’s population is over 60. For these voters, the availability of NHS services is of immediate importance.
On the high street in Honiton, by far the biggest concern among those I spoke to was the economy and the cost of living. People appear to want distinctive economic ideas; the Lib Dems’ proposed VAT cut may not be enough. As for partygate, a sweetly smiling churchwarden in an ice cream shop described the scandal as a “load of absolute crap”. Lib Dem and Labour canvassers told me trust in the Prime Minister was consistently an issue on the doorstep, but an 80-year-old bowls enthusiast told me she had used her postal vote “for Boris Johnson” (she couldn’t name the Conservative candidate) because she thought he had done a good job of delivering Brexit and steering the country through the pandemic. A butcher said he will vote for the Conservative candidate, although he too did not know her name. Are the Lib Dems assuming too much? It may be that “taken for granted” Tories will vote “to send a message” of protest or anger to their party, as Richard Foord puts it. But some disaffected voters might move further to the right, towards Reform UK (formerly the Brexit Party) or even the remodelled Ukip. Or, as happened in 1997, Conservative apathy could become a decisive factor.
One clear assumption is that the Lib Dems are in what Davey calls “a two-horse race” and that Labour is too focused on Wakefield to be active here. However, the Lib Dems have not done better than third place in the constituency since 2010, and in the past three general elections the biggest dent in Parish’s majority was made by the Corbyn supporter Caroline Kolek. The one Labour supporter I met in Honiton said many of her friends were lending their votes to the Lib Dems. “They think it’s the only way they can get rid of Johnson,” she said, adding that she’d been “inundated with literature from the Lib Dems”.
Foord’s press team maintains a bustling presence on the ground, but outside The Weary Traveller pub in Cullompton the Labour candidate, Liz Pole, calls a press officer in London when she needs advice. Beyond the beer garden, lorries rumble past. Almost all are passing through, taking the shortest route between Exeter and the M5. A new relief road has been promised, but to pay for it the council will need “section 106” funding from the Housing Infrastructure Fund. If the people of Cullompton (population 8,500) want to reduce the number of HGVs, they will have to accept another 2,000 houses being built.
It’s on issues such as local planning that Pole, a local businesswoman and school governor, has focused her campaign. She resents that this by-election has become yet another plebiscite on who should run the Conservative Party and thus lead the country. For Pole, this could be a chance for voters in Devon to address the issues that lead most of its young people, as I did, to leave: the lack of public transport, affordable housing and well-paid jobs. But even Ben Bradshaw, the Labour MP for Exeter, has suggested that by-elections provide an opportunity to show “a joint purpose of wanting to send the Prime Minister a message”.
“It’s nice for Ed Davey to be here, testing the water in the River Axe,” says Pole, “but where was he last month? He wouldn’t have been here testing our water if Neil Parish hadn’t been fiddling with his phone. I feel like it’s a bit of a flash in the pan, and when the circus has left town, it’ll be people like me who are continuing to fight on the issues.”
By-elections offer voters a chance to protest against the government – something many of us enjoy doing – and the people of Tiverton and Honiton can show the Conservatives that Johnson has outlived his electoral usefulness. But there’s also a chance that the Lib Dems are playing into Johnson’s hands. A Tory victory in the present circumstances could be spun as a kind of personal vindication.
More fundamentally, by making this by-election all about Johnson and his leadership, Davey’s party could be helping to reinforce a situation in which British politics is a never-ending test of the Prime Minister’s personal brand. When every vote is an act of applause or revenge, good policy and competent government become irrelevant, and populism always wins.
[Follow the latest news from the by-elections in our Live blog: LIVE: Wakefield and Tiverton & Honiton by-election results – New Statesman]
This article appears in the 15 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Big Slow Down