The Liberal Democrats are targeting St Ives — where nobody is talking about Brexit

Andrew George is fighting his own party’s policies, copycat candidates and Cornish unpredictability in the battle to unseat a Tory.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

In most parts of the country, if you go up to a Leave-voting man of a certain age, you can pretty much guarantee a vote for the Conservative Party. But the good folk of Cornwall refuse to be pigeonholed.

"Who will I vote for?” ruminates Paul Frost, eating a mid-morning pasty on Penzance’s bustling high street. “We don't have a Brexit Party candidate. Jeremy Corbyn is hopeless. Boris Johnson is a clown. Probably the Green Party.”

Frost, who believes that parliamentary democracy ought to be replaced by a people’s assembly, is not the only idiosyncratic thinker at the end of the country. West Cornwall in particular has always attracted the kooks, the Celts, the dropouts and the rebels. Perhaps it is no surprise then that politics here is all a bit topsy-turvy. Despite a national slogan that reads “Stop Brexit”, the Liberal Democrats do not mention their signature policy once on their leaflets in St Ives and the Scilly Isles.

“Brexit is an important issue — it's about 12th on my list,” says the party’s candidate Andrew George with a scallywag smile. He has just revealed that he is related to a 19th-century man called “The King of the Smugglers”. 

“The Lib Dems moved to a position of revoke because of you — the media. What the leader of a third party fears most is invisibility. I think that Jo [Swinson] was seeking to make extravagant statements in order not to be buried. I think that was wrong.”

By no means is George a convert to the Leave cause. He is just not as vociferously pro-Remain as many of his Lib Dem colleagues.

“I'm a pragmatist rather than an idolatrist,” he says of his belief in EU membership. He takes the example of the fishing industry — a vital part of the local economy — and softly takes the sting out of the Brexit debate with detached analysis.

“The Tories will end up with foreign boats fishing in UK waters, but we will have no say on the Common Fisheries Policy. More than 80 per cent of the fish that is caught by local trawlers is exported — almost entirely to Europe. We will end up with 15-20 per cent tariffs as well as administrative impediments.”

George is a seasoned politician, and it shows. He was the Liberal Democrat MP for St Ives and the Scilly Isles from 1997 until 2015, when a Lib Dem wipeout in the West Country, coupled with significant local boundary change, saw the Conservative Derek Thomas supplant him (Thomas declined a request to be interviewed). In 2017, George came within 312 votes of winning his seat back. This year St Ives is one of the top Liberal Democrat targets. But given that the constituency voted by 54 per cent for Leave, George cannot afford to run an unambiguously Remain campaign — as the voters prove.

“At the time of the referendum I would have voted leave but I was away,” says Greg Hayman, who seems keener on the idea of a second referendum than he is on revoking Article 50. "What has come out since — I'm not so sure Brexit has been a good idea."

Hayman has quite possibly the best job in the world. He drives the toy train that chugs along the Cornish coast from St Erth to St Ives, dipping in and out of azure bays and brushing past shivering palms. The St Ives and Scilly Isles constituency, which also includes the Lizard Peninsula and St Michael's Mount, is not short of visual thrills for travelling journalists.

“I'd normally vote Conservative — you follow in the footsteps of your father,” continues Hayman, leaning out of the train door. “The Lib Dems do seem popular round here though. Andrew George stands up for the local community.”

In St Ives itself, populated by retired art history lecturers and disgruntled fishermen, there is much appreciation for George as there is throughout the constituency. Despite not being an MP for two years, he is a popular local figure. Crucially, he is recognised as a coalition rebel, who launched buccaneering raids on everything from cuts in legal aid to Andrew Lansley's health reforms when he was in parliament.

“I'm going to vote Liberal Democrat. Normally I would vote Green but that would not make any difference,” says Laura Wood, a St Ives seller of knick-knacks with a nose ring. “It's a tactical vote so the Tories don't get in.”

Throughout the constituency, plenty of young people are lending their votes to the Lib Dems. This is a testament to the formidable organisation of the local party. Whether it be spreading the word on social media, using a nifty app to work out which houses have been canvassed or relentlessly pressing supporters to put up posters in their windows, the Lib Dems’ groundwork cannot be faulted.

Older Tory supporters, meanwhile, are a little confused. Some are disappointed that they have not had a leaflet through the letterbox, others have grown disillusioned with Johnson the more they have seen of him. There is significant Leave support, but it does not automatically lend itself to the Tories.

“We're England. We don't need anyone else. Amen,” says Carolyn Newton, a pensioner in Penzance who works part-time in Tesco. Newton ought to be voting Conservative, but she is in fact opting for Labour.

St Ives and the Scilly Isles will be close. Very close. When the margins are this tight everything makes a difference. A potential trap for the Liberal Democrats is the confusing appearance of a copycat party on the ballot paper. Bob Smith, a founding member of Ukip, has performed one of the most unlikely U-turns in political history and is now standing for the Liberal Party in St Ives. Could this hive off a few hundred distracted voters? And whilst the Brexit Party has stood down, the Greens have insisted on standing — despite George's frequent collaborations with Caroline Lucas.

“I was surprised and disappointed the Greens didn't stand down,” says George. “Green voters have a choice. If I don't win they will end up with a Tory MP who has backed a government which scrapped the Department of Energy and Climate Change, scrapped sustainable homes regulations, flogged off the Green Investment Bank, stopped the Green deal, withdrew investment from renewables and voted consistently against every proposed measure to combat climate change.”

George makes a good point, but his analysis relies on predictable behaviour from his constituents. As we know, the Cornish rarely fit the mould.

George Grylls is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2019.