Are Conservative MPs running scared of the Liberal Democrats?

Tories have been struck by the departure of two MPs who won their seats from the Lib Dems at the 2015 election. 

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Conservative circles at Westminster are alive with chatter that Mims Davies, the employment minister and MP for Eastleigh, is planning to switch seats ahead of December’s election.

When Davies announced she would not be a candidate in her Hampshire constituency this morning, it was taken in SW1 as an announcement that she would be leaving parliament full stop. Davies’ full resignation statement to her constituents, however, doesn’t go quite so far. In it, she cites the demands of her ministerial role and young family in Sussex as her reason for leaving Eastleigh. She does not say she intends to quit the Commons altogether.

Instead, colleagues whisper that she will instead seek selection in Mid Sussex — where Nicholas Soames, with whom Davies is close, is retiring. Given her personal reasons for quitting Eastleigh, such a switch would make sense. Soames also leaves behind a healthy majority of 19,673 — an enticing prospect for any ambitious Tory. 

Davies has denied that she is seeking another seat and says her decision is a political, rather than a personal one. Indeed, her own majority in Eastleigh is a fairly chunky 14,179. But her departure has raised eyebrows regardless. 

Why? It has not been lost on Tory MPs that, though Davies won a convincing victory over the Liberal Democrats in 2017, Jo Swinson’s party control the local council, and reduced the Tories to just two councillors in May. They only lost the seat to Davies after 21 years of continuous control in 2015. 

Despite its narrow vote to Leave in 2016, Eastleigh is precisely the sort of seat the Liberal Democrats believe they can win back in December: it is affluent and predominantly middle class, and the party have a strong record locally. The same is true of North Devon, where another Tory MP who won their seat from the Liberal Democrats in 2015, Peter Heaton-Jones, has announced that he will not stand (again stressing his decision was personal, rather than political). 

Though no two MPs stand down for exactly the same reason, Tories have taken the departures of Heaton-Jones and Davies as evidence of a real and present danger of a Liberal Democrat surge in the seats that gave David Cameron his majority in 2015 — and might yet deny Boris Johnson his.

Patrick Maguire was political correspondent at the New Statesman.

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