- There are 55 parliamentary constituencies in the South West of England. Currently, the Conservatives hold 36, the Lib Dems 15 and Labour only 4.
- The South West is just about the closest thing the Lib Dems have to a heartland. But over a quarter of their MPs in the region are standing down at this election (Don Foster, Annette Brooke, David Heath and Jeremy Browne) – potentially depriving them of the incumbency advantage on which they are betting so much. Not only does a Lib Dem collapse threaten yellow seats, it may provide a boost to Labour challengers in Tory-held seats.
- While the region is dominated by rural and market town constituencies, there are some urban battlegrounds, too. Largest and most divided is Bristol, whose four seats are split two Labour, one Conservative and one Lib Dem. Plymouth’s two seats are both held on majorities of less than 1,600 votes (one by the Conservatives and one by Labour). Exeter should be an interesting fight, as Labour’s majority has been on the slide since 2001.
- Historically, UKIP have always regarded the South West as a strong grassroots area – but it has never quite delivered on that promise. At the last election their intervention certainly cost the Conservatives in some seats (ironically aiding the europhile Lib Dems). It is worth watching their performance on the night to see if they flourish or suffer a squeeze.
- The Tories’ 40/40 strategy hinges on success in the South West – a quarter of the attack seats are South Western.
Among the big issues at play in the election campaign in the South West are:
- Jobs and the economy: As Tim Montgomerie recently pointed out, rural and coastal communities in the South West (and Cornwall in particular) remain some of the most deprived in the country. Job creation is a major issue, as is the debate over regional spending. Both are high on the agenda wherever you go, but the emphasis here is even sharper.
- Transport: Road and rail connections have always been a powerful topic in South West politics – but they became even more important after last year’s storms destroyed the main railway line at Dawlish.
- Digital infrastructure: Expect to see a lot of campaigning on broadband connectivity and mobile blackspots.
- The countryside: The badger cull (the future of which Liz Truss discussed recently), which was launched here, the future of the hunting ban and field sports more generally (as raised by the Western Morning News only a few days ago) are all highly emotive – will the Conservatives locally be able to capitalise on topics which the national party might prefer to avoid?
Battleground Rating: 9/10
Targets by party:
(NB These are our own suggestions of potential attack seats for each party – including those officially designated as targets and others where the incumbent has a relatively small majority, or local factors are at play which may open the seat to change.)
Mid Dorset and North Poole: Having seen her majority slashed to just 269 votes in 2010 (making this the Number 5 Conservative target in the country), Annette Brooke is standing down this year. She has apparently “mentored” Poole councillor and cafe owner Vikki Slade as her chosen successor for some years. Slade’s campaign is one of those being bankrolled by Lord Oakeshott. The Conservative challenger, Michael Tomlinson, was selected in March 2013. A Mid Dorset-based barrister, notably he was the Tory campaign manager in 2010, so knows the beat and has the assistance of being a designated 40/40 candidate. In September, an Ashcroft poll showed UKIP surging to 19 per cent but the Conservatives out in front on 38 per cent.
Wells: In 2010, Wells foreshadowed UKIP’s impact on Conservative candidates. Lib Dem Tessa Munt unseated eurosceptic David Heathcoat-Amory by 800 votes, while UKIP chalked up 1,711 votes. This time round, Munt will be defending the seat using Lord Oakeshott’s money, and the constituency has been marked out as one of the Conservatives’ 40/40 attack seats. The Tory candidate is James Heappey, a former officer in The Rifles turned project manager (and former researcher for Liam Fox), who has written recently for this site. Lord Ashcroft’s polling in September found UKIP overtaking Labour into third place, while the Conservatives enjoyed a seven point lead over the Lib Dems.
St Austell and Newquay: Created in 2010, this seat had a notional Lib Dem majority – and so it proved, with Stephen Gilbert winning by 1,312 votes. It was an unusual seat last time round, with three small parties (UKIP, the BNP and Mebyon Kernow) receiving over 1,000 votes – but Ashcroft polling in September suggested it might become a three-way marginal between UKIP (25 per cent), the Lib Dems (26 per cent) and the Conservatives (27 per cent). The Conservative hopeful is Steve Double, who was born in St Austell and has long been active in business and local politics in the county.
Somerton and Frome: Held by David Heath since 1997, this has never been a safe Lib Dem seat – his biggest majority was the 1,817 he secured in 2010. Now Heath is standing down, and David Rendel, his would-be successor, is another of those receiving Oakeshott funding for his campaign. Rendel is a former Lib Dem MP, having represented Newbury in Berkshire from 1993-2005. David Warburton, the Conservative candidate, is a former musician and serial technology entrepreneur. Ashcroft polling in September placed the Tories 14 points ahead on 41 per cent, with UKIP in third place on 17 per cent.
St Ives: Andrew George, the Lib Dem MP for St Ives, saw a dramatic fall in his majority in 2010, down from 11,609 to 1,719, and the Conservatives are hoping this is the year to finish the job. To that end, they’ve designated St Ives as one of the 40/40, and the Tory hopeful is Derek Thomas, a local businessman, who delivered the 10 per cent swing the party enjoyed here last time. Lord Ashcroft’s polling suggests it will be a tough fight for all involved – his latest poll found the Conservatives and Lib Dems neck and neck.
Taunton Deane: The current MP, Jeremy Browne, is probably the closest you can get to a Tory’s favourite Lib Dem – and he proved popular in the constituency, too, winning by 3,993 in 2010. But he’s standing down, apparently disillusioned after Clegg sacked him as a Minister, and Rachel Gilmour, his successor, apparently lacks some of his electoral appeal. Ashcroft polling in September found both Labour and UKIP making gains of around 10 per cent, and the Conservatives in the overall lead by four percentage points. Rebecca Pow, the Conservative PPC, is a local businesswoman and former broadcaster. She was selected by open meeting in the summer of 2013.
Plymouth Moor View: A rarer (for the South West) Con-Lab marginal in 2010, Alison Seabeck holds the seat with a 1,588 vote majority. The constituency displays a very different profile from many of the Con-Lib marginals in Lord Ashcroft’s polling – his December snapshot found a large UKIP surge (30 per cent), pushing the Conservatives into third place on 26 per cent. The Conservative candidate, Johnny Mercer, is an Army veteran (who wrote about veterans’ mental health for us earlier in the week).
Chippenham: Newly created in 2010, Duncan Hames took the seat for the Lib Dems with a majority of 2,470. However, judging by the Ashcroft polling Hames is in trouble – a poll in September found Lib Dem support collapsing by almost half to 24 per cent, and the Conservative vote holding up well at 39 per cent despite rises on the part of UKIP and Labour. Michelle Donelan was selected as the Tory PPC two years ago, so she’s had a good stretch of campaigning time – which she is using to focus on very localised campaigning in the constituency.
Exeter: Held by Labour’s Ben Bradshaw since 1997, Exeter has proved to be a difficult seat to wrest back for the Tories. However, 2010 saw Bradshaw’s majority fall to 2,721. Dom Morris, the Conservative challenger, has worked in conflict zones including in Syria with the Foreign Office and with charities such as the Prince’s Trust. While not a designated 40/40 seat, Morris is fighting a strong grassroots campaign – ultimately, the outcome will likely depend on the eventual destination of Exeter’s 10,000 Lib Dem voters from 2010.
North Devon: Nick Harvey won the constituency for the Lib Dems in 1992, and has held on to it through thick and thin ever since – the definition of the difficult of prising the yellowsout once bedded in. His 5,821 majority in 2010 looks strong, but the unpredictable nature of four party politics may be at play – in November, Lord Ashcroft found the Conservatives on 30 per cent, the Lib Dems on 29 per cent and UKIP jumping to 23 per cent (apparently largely to the Lib Dems’ cost). Each will likely be looking to squeeze the other as a result. Peter Heaton-Jones, the Conservative PPC, is a former BBC journalist who served as campaign director for the successful General Election battles in Swindon in 2010.
North Cornwall: Last time round, Dan Rogerson managed to slow but not halt the decline of the Lib Dem majority here, and in 2010 it stood at 2,981. In September, Lord Ashcroft found the race on a knife edge – much will depend on the possibility of Labour tactical voting and the success or failure of the Conservatives in winning over some of the 20 per cent of voters who are leaning towards UKIP. The Conservative candidate is Scott Mann, a local postman who is born and bred in the constituency.
Torbay: Another of the crop of seats won by the Lib Dems in 1997 and held ever since 1997, Adrian Sanders holds Torbay with a majority of 4,078 votes. As in North Cornwall, Ashcroft polling found the Conservatives and Lib Dems neck and neck, so a huge amount will depend on the Labour and UKIP waverers. Sanders’ survival campaign is bolstered by £20,000 from Lord Oakeshott. Kevin Foster, the Tory challenger, is originally from Devon, moved away for work in criminal law and returned a couple of years ago to be closer to his family.
Cheltenham: Martin Horwood has spent ten years digging himself in, so it will be a difficult challenge for the Conservatives to overturn the Lib Dem’s 4,920 majority – particularly as this is another of the campaigns Oakeshott is bankrolling. Lord Ashcroft’s poll in November suggested Horwood is holding on, aided by a nine point jump in the UKIP vote. His opponent, Alex Chalk, is a counter-terrorism barrister who was brought up in Cheltenham, and who played a part in the Hammersmith and Fulham council revolution while living in London.
Plymouth Sutton and Devonport: Oliver Colvile won the new (and notionally Labour) seat in 2010 by 1,149 votes. Last summer an Ashcroft poll found the Lib Dem collapse driving Labour into the lead, while the UKIP surge chips away at the Conservative share of the vote. Colvile is up against Luke Pollard, a former staffer at Labour HQ who now works in the travel industry.
Gloucester: Richard Graham’s ability to hold onto the constituency he won for the Conservatives last time by 2,420 votes will depend on the now-familiar, complex movement of UKIP and the Lib Dems. Just as the rise in the Lib Dem vote helped to unseat Labour in 2010, so its fall can be seen in October’s Ashcroft poll helping to push Labour into near parity with the Conservatives. In a tight race, Graham will be seeking to persuade some of the 18 per cent considering UKIP that their cause wouldn’t be best served by helping to elect Labour’s Sophy Gardner (though her former job as an RAF Wing Commander might make that a bit more difficult).
Bristol North West: Labour would dearly love to overturn Charlotte Leslie’s 3,274 majority here – there’s certainly a sizeable Lib Dem vote for them to hunt, but Leslie has built up a personal following in the constituency. Her opponent, Darren Jones, is a solicitor who was backed in his selection campaign by Unite.
Stroud: A marginal seat for two decades now, Neil Carmichael seized it from Labour with a 1,299 majority in 2010. David Drew, the former Labour MP, wants it back. There are 8,000 Lib Dem votes to chase, and while an Ashcroft poll last summer showed Labour out in front it’s worth noting that the picture is complicated by a below-average UKIP showing (11 per cent) and an above-average level of Green support (11 per cent).
Kingswood: Chris Skidmore won Kingswood for the Conservatives in 2010 with a 9.4 point swing, securing a 2,445 vote majority. In another reminder of how odd and varied this election is likely to be, Lord Ashcroft’s poll in October found the Tory MP two points ahead despite the combination of a Lib Dem collapse and a large UKIP surge. It’ll be a hard-fought battle between Skidmore and Labour’s Jo McCarron, a local artist and campaigner.
North East Somerset: You’d have to have a heart of stone to vote against Jacob Rees-Mogg, ad his 4,914 majority from 2010 looks fairly healthy. But Labour’s Todd Foreman (a financial services lawyer from Kansas) is eyeing up the 11,433 Lib Dem voters with a view to gobbling them up. There’ll likely be a significant element of personal vote in play – “vox populi, vox dei”, as Rees-Mogg would likely say.
Camborne and Redruth: Labour were a distant third here in what was an extremely close Lib/Con marginal in 2010, but the evaporation of the Lib Dem vote and the rise of UKIP has made them potential competitors. Lord Ashcroft polling last summer found the Conservative George Eustice on 29 per cent, UKIP on 26 per cent and Labour on 24 per cent, threatening the possibility that the split on the right might let Labour in. Michael Foster, the Labour candidate, founded his own celebrity talent agency.
South East Cornwall: Sheryll Murray took the seat from the Lib Dems in 2010 with a 3,220 majority (a 9.1 point swing). It’s very much an outside chance, but as Iain Dale posits if the Lib Dem vote holds up and UKIP see a dramatic rise it might undermine Murray’s majority. The yellow peril in question is Phil Hutty, a social worker.
Truro and Falmouth: Sarah Newton pipped the Lib Dems to the post by 435 votes here in 2010. An Ashcroft poll last summer showed an interesting scene – Newton’s vote share was down to 33 per cent, but the Lib Dems had collapsed from 41 per cent down to 16 per cent, fourth place behind UKIP (22 per cent) and Labour (18 per cent). Quite how the resignation this week of the Labour candidate, after it emerged she had received more benefit money than she was due, will affect things, who knows – but if the non-Tory vote remains split three ways then Newton should be safe.
Newton Abbot: A very similar story to Truro and Falmouth – Anne-Marie Morris secured a 523 vote majority at the last election. In June 2014, Lord Ashcroft found the Tory vote holding up well on 39 per cent, the Lib Dems down on 20 per cent in joint second with UKIP, and Labour up a bit to 13 per cent. Again, 11 months is a long time in any campaign, but such an even split in the opposition will suit Morris just fine.
Camborne and Redruth: Julia Goldsworthy, the MP for the old seat of Falmouth and Camborne, is hoping to take this seat from George Eustice, who holds it for the Conservatives by 66 votes. However, Ashcroft polling last June suggests the Lib Dems are now outsiders, sitting on fourth place in what may now be a three way marginal (Survation suggest they might slip into fifth, behind the Greens).
Plymouth Moor View: Yes, I know it appears above as a potential Conservative target – and yes, UKIP were a distant fourth in 2010 with less than eight per cent of the vote. But Farage has declared it a target, his party did win the constituency in last year’s European election and that Ashcroft poll does show them reaching 30 per cent. Their candidate, Penny Mills, describes herself as an environmental campaigner.
Camborne and Redruth: It’s ironic to an extent that UKIP appear to be surging particularly strongly here, in a seat held by someone who once stood for them – George Eustice. Ashcroft polling in June 2014 put UKIP in a close second place, then in November a Survation poll suggested UKIP might be in the lead, on 33 per cent. Their prospects don’t seem to have been harmed by the unfortunate fact of their original candidate being jailed for animal welfare offences. His successor, Dr Robert Smith, is an educational psychologist.