Tuesday is market day in Castle Cary. Droplets trickled from freshly-watered hanging baskets, as the sun pressed through puffs of cloud. Stalls selling craft cider and sausage rolls sprawled onto the square, shaded by the honey-stoned Victorian market house of this tiny south Somerset town.
This is the thatch-topped, narrow-laned heart of the Somerton and Frome constituency, where voters will choose their next MP on Thursday after the current one – David Warburton, a Conservative elected in 2015 – resigned amid claims of cocaine use and sexual harassment. (He admits the former, but denies the latter.)
Faye Purbrick, the Conservative candidate to replace him, was hovering with intent in a wholesome pine-green dress around the veg stand. A Praetorian Guard of anxious young Tories in blazers, jeans and brown shoes surrounded her. I asked her how it was going. “There’s no time for questions now, sorry,” a mini guard in aviators told me, escorting her away to look further at some broccoli.
An elderly pensioner turned up for some shopping. Purbrick asked how she would vote on Thursday. “Lib Dem,” she smiled. “Well, maybe you’ll vote for me in the general election.” She wouldn’t. They posed for a photo together anyway.
[See also: Lib Dems are coming for the Blue Wall]
Twice more I tried to chat to Purbrick, before her men marched her swiftly uphill and away, leaving me a leaflet, designed in purple and white – no Tory blue, or smidgen of Conservative Party branding. I returned to the market, defeated. A stallholder gave me a commiseration sausage roll. “She should really speak to you – it’s free speech, isn’t it?”
But there were other people I could speak to. Locals were concerned about mortgage and price rises, the struggles of farmers and food producers, stretched healthcare, polluted waters and badly behaved public figures.
“It’s a hard one, I’ve always voted Conservative and my family always did, but they’ve not been endearing themselves,” said Colin Loader, 60, a baker who was born here. He sells a lot of sourdough loaves these days, as well as his traditional granary cobs. “Partygate was very disappointing, and our MP doing things he shouldn’t have – they’re supposed to be setting an example. Drugs and all that? You might expect it in a city, but from a local here, no.”
Wiping his floury fingers on his apron, Loader wasn’t sure which way to vote – but his wife and many customers were switching to Lib Dem, to “give the Conservatives a shock”. “I think the Lib Dems are for the local issues,” Loader said. “They talk about things that matter here, like a lack of GPs.”
Opposite, the florist, Stuart Needs, 47, was also undecided. A floating voter, he wasn’t happy with the Conservatives (for “a list of reasons as long as your arm”, including failing to stop “small boats” of migrants crossing the Channel) but felt the Lib Dems were dishonest. “They put up tuition fees, and they wanted to take us straight back into Europe,” he said, referring to the party’s “rejoin the EU” 2019 general election message. “Brexit is being handled badly, but the vote was cast and the result should stand,” he added, arranging his last remaining dahlias in a bucket. (South Somerset, like the south-west as a whole, voted Leave.)
[See also: Why by-election defeats would benefit Sunak]
“I’ll be voting Lib Dem. I want to give the Tories a bloody nose,” said Bob, 56, a local chef in a blue chore jacket and Chelsea boots, carrying a bagful of strawberries and some “very expensive white crab meat”. He’d voted for Tony Blair’s Labour before and the Conservatives once – for Boris Johnson as London mayor, when he lived in the capital. In all honesty, he’s not “totally up to date with the Lib Dems’ national policies”. It’s just that voting Lib Dem (the party came a distant second to the Conservatives here in 2019) is the only way to stop the Tories, he said.
“Lib Dem is the only choice,” agreed Tanya Levy, who runs a nearby catering business and has lived here 25 years. She would usually support Labour, but wants to vote “tactically to keep the Tories out”.
It’s this phenomenon – people lending their votes – that has powered big Lib Dem victories in rural by-elections in the last couple of years. Despite Labour being second place behind Tory majorities of over 20,000 in Tiverton and Honiton in Devon, and in North Shropshire, the third party leapfrogged both Labour and the Tories to significant wins.
The Conservatives have a majority of 19,213 in Somerton and Frome, but it’s liberal land really. The wax jacket and carful-of-crumbs kind, rather than the eurocratic Cleggmania variety. People here still remember the party as “the Liberals”, as one nostalgic Lib Dem strategist put it. Paddy Ashdown lived over the way as MP for Yeovil, and Somerton and Frome had a Lib Dem MP for 18 years from 1997.
After contaminating themselves with power in coalition, the Lib Dems were wiped out in the south-west in 2015 – and aside from in Bath, they didn’t end up with a single MP in Cornwall, Devon or Somerset at the last election. Now, Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, is sniffing a West Country revival. In the corporate away day kit of navy quarter-zip pullover, white collar and chinos, he was found posing with some emancipated ponies at a horse welfare centre outside Somerton, another small town in the seat.
A Lib Dem press officer told me this visit was for Davey to say “it’s a two-horse race” (as in, don’t bother voting anyone but Lib Dem if you want to block the Tory). A beaming staff member led Holly, an abandoned skewbald yearling, into the frame alone. There was an awkward pause. “We need two,” Davey said, looking pained, with two fingers up in a rather defeated peace sign. “We need two horses, because it’s a two-horse race. Have you been told?” “No, I haven’t,” said Holly’s minder. May, another pony, ambled into shot to save the degrading day.
Davey is hoping to win back places like this, on top of the newer, smoother “Blue Wall” Home County and commuterland gains (he lists “Oxfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire” like an estate agent reading the Shipping Forecast).
“We’d been struggling in the West Country, but over the last two years it looks like there’s growing evidence that we’re coming back,” he told me, after petting a pure-bred Arab horse called Vladimir (to the Mail photographer’s delight). “If we bring this home, I think it will be clear that we’ve opened a second flank up against the Tories, which is really damaging for them – if we’re taking the Blue Wall, which is relatively new territory, and we’re coming back in the West Country, we can do them some damage.”
The Lib Dem candidate, Sarah Dyke, who grew up in a local farming family dating back to 1763, felt the party brand recovering in her rural homeland. “In the West Country, I think there’s a resurgence for the Liberal Democrats.” Not just a protest against the government? “No, in Somerset particularly we have a really strong record; people remember us as hardworking champions, and we took control of Somerset Council last year.”
While they both fussed over the horses, they only really had one message: that the 8,000-odd Labour voters here should switch to the Lib Dems. Anti-Tory tactical voting like this on a nationwide scale, which can’t be modelled by election forecasters, is key if Labour is to win a substantial general election victory. The Tories, in turn, accuse their opponents of stitch-ups.
“There are no pacts, no deals. We go where we think we can win,” said Davey, as Vladimir looked mournfully at the camera, snorting and pinning his ears back in irritation. The politicians were hustled out of the pen. Perhaps he hadn’t forgiven them for tripling tuition fees.
[See also: Who will win the Somerton and Frome by-election?]