‘Gove saw the polls and realised he might lose’: Lib Dems hope to knock down Tory ‘blue wall’ in Surrey

Estimated read time 5 min read

Shortly after Rishi Sunak got drenched in a downpour in Downing Street to call a surprise general election, a missive was sent out to party supporters in a key Surrey constituency to rally support.

Campaigners were urged to “safeguard the future” of the leafy Surrey Heath seat in the commuter belt and be “fully dedicated to making sure Michael Gove is re-elected”.

It was an inspiring call to arms, but not everyone was on board. Two days after a soggy Sunak announced the election, Gove said he would not in fact be standing again.

The Surrey Heath Conservative Association has been wrongfooted by the pace of political events and is yet to announce its candidate.

When the door of its offices in the village of Windlesham was buzzed by the Observer on Friday, the window blinds were drawn and the local party agent only briefly appeared with a curt: “No comment.”

Michael GoveView image in fullscreen

The Liberal Democrats, who took control of the local council last year, are now relishing a battle to try to seize what was once one of the safest Conservative seats in the country.

Their ambition is to build a “yellow wedge” of seats from south-west London into the heart of the home counties.

Speaking at the local party’s campaign headquarters in an office block next to Camberley railway station, Alasdair Pinkerton, an academic and the Lib Dem candidate, said the seat’s Tory campaigners had been “left in the lurch” by Gove’s decision.

He added: “Gove was never built for opposition and I also think he saw the polls and realised that it was going to be incredibly tight and he might lose.”

Despite needing to overturn a majority of more than 18,300 votes, Pinkerton considers the seat is “absolutely winnable”. He believes swathes of lifelong Tory voters are turning their back on the party.

“There has been a whole series of tipping points,” he said. “For some people it was Boris [Johnson] partying during lockdown and for others it was the PPE [personal protective equipment] contracts.

“It’s been like dominoes, with people falling at slightly different times. Some will never go back. Many have come over to us. Not everybody, but a very large number.”

Bob PritchardView image in fullscreen

Bob Pritchard, 76, who lives in Camberley, the biggest town in the constituency, is among the once loyal Tory supporters who now describe themselves as “floating voters”. He said that he considered Boris Johnson had been “embarrassing” as a prime minister and described Liz Truss as a “disaster”.

“Politics and this country are not in a good place,” he said. “There needs to be change.”

Pritchard said he was moving away from the Tories, but was not impressed by Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, who was pictured last week falling from a paddleboard on Windermere and racing down a children’s waterslide in a rubber ring. Pritchard said: “I think the antics he gets up to are not conducive to being leader of a party.”

Retired couple Terry and Caroline Wiseman, who were among the householders being canvassed by the Lib Dem team last week, are also ex-Tory supporters now looking to cast their votes elsewhere.

Terry, 68, a former commercial manager, said: “I have voted Tory since I was 18, but I won’t be voting Tory this time. Liz Truss was the final straw.” The couple are still undecided on which candidate will get their vote.

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Terry Emment, 61, who has a fruit and vegetable stall in Camberley town centre, is also among the undecided voters. He said: “I have voted Tory all my life. It’s now time for a change. I voted for Brexit, but the consequences have been horrendous for my business.”

He said leaving the single market meant he was now paying a “surcharge” of £60 on each pallet of imported produce.

Dainah Wanjiru, 43, a care worker, who was walking in the town centre with her four children, said she wanted a new government to invest more in social care. She said: “Life is hard as a carer and trying to pay the bills is very difficult,” she said.

On the doorstep, the key issues are the cost of living crisis, the NHS and sewage discharges into the country’s rivers by the water companies.

In February and March last year, raw sewage sludge was imported to Thames Water’s sewage treatment works in Camberley, permeating the community with a foul stench over the summer months.

It later emerged that more than 200 tankers of raw sewage had been transported to the town after all of Thames Water’s treatment plants reached critical capacity. The company apologised, but said it was faced with the choice of storing it in tanks in the town or discharging it into rivers, causing massive pollution.

Another key local issue is the previous decision by the formerly Tory-controlled Surrey Heath council to borrow funds to buy a House of Fraser building in Camberley town centre and the shopping centre for £113m in 2016. The developments are now thought to be worth 70% less than the purchase price.

Pinkerton fought Surrey Heath in the last election, achieving a 16.4% swing to the Lib Dems, and while Gove still won with a majority of 18,349, Surrey Heath is now on the party’s target list of Tory “blue wall” seats. In the last election, Labour trailed third, with just 5,407 votes.

Clive Watson, 63, the pub entrepreneur and co-founder of the City Pub Group, who lives in village of Pirbright in the constituency, has previously campaigned for the Tories, but switched his support to the Lib Dems after the vote for Brexit.

Watson believes the Tories may lose Surrey Heath. “There are a lot of former Conservatives who are now shy Liberal Democrats,” he said. “People are disillusioned with the Conservatives.”

Source: theguardian.com

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