A wild and woolly time awaits on the opposition benches

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Edwardian eyebrows would definitely have been raised at the idea of a Liberal party leader doing a bungee jump or making his policy pitch in a dripping wetsuit. But this week Sir Ed Davey managed to secure more seats for his Liberal Democrats, the party’s modern-day iteration, than at any time since the days of Liberal pomp under Asquith and Lloyd George.

Are we witnessing the strange rebirth of Liberal Britain, in the shape of a campaigning centrist dad falling off paddle-boards and dancing to ‘Sweet Caroline’ to celebrate his record haul of 72 seats, the most since the Liberals were last a viable party of government in 1923?

After the Conservative vote collapsed on Thursday across England and Wales, the Liberal Democrats toppled several cabinet ministers and broke new ground in “true blue” Tory counties of southern England. Oxfordshire has no Tory MPs at all, most are now Lib Dems. Through Hertfordshire and Hampshire, Davey’s troops swept like a hurricane, to paraphrase My Fair Lady (leaving Herefordshire to the Greens).

But they also regained Leave-voting areas of the South West that seemed forever lost to the party. It is now possible to take a trip from south-west London to Devon and never leave Davey territory.

Meanwhile, in another part of the formerly-Conservative forest, Green party co-leader Adrian Ramsay picked up the rural Suffolk seat of Waveney Valley — a place where you would once have struggled to meet many of the party’s supporters. They also took their target in Herefordshire, won Bristol Central from Labour and held Brighton Pavilion. After 14 years stuck at just one MP, this qualifies as a genuine breakthrough, with decent second places to build on and vote share up to nearly 7 per cent.

Tactical voting is probably behind both these parties’ bulked up Commons presence. In the “blue wall”, research on voters’ attitudes showed an admirable flexibility — as campaigners for the opposition parties saw it — to co-operate with on carving up the territory depending on who was best placed to deliver the outgoing Conservative government a kicking. “A party that doesn’t approve of FPTP has learnt how to use it”, said Robert Saunders, political historian.

Political analysts, usually a circumspect breed, confessed themselves “stunned” by the scale of the tactical voting. Sleep-deprived politics watchers debated whether the movement of the electorate away from the two main parties and the boost for other, smaller players might be the new normal.

One thing seems clear. Even leaving aside the Reform contingent, the opposition benches will be a wild and woolly place. Added to the large new Lib Dem presence will be a shrunken SNP rump hostile to Labour, the four Greens agitating on net zero, and a new parliamentary curiosity: a former leader, with chums, who wouldn’t go quietly.

Jeremy Corbyn, victorious in Islington North, will attack his former party from the left. He might sit alongside the four other independents who deprived Labour of seats in the north and midlands over its Gaza policy. Just wait until Starmer has to adjust to a probable second Trump presidency for them to create a lot of noise — and discomfort for Labour MPs whose supporters are unhappy with the leader’s policies.

The Lib Dems don’t want their new haul of MPs to be seen as part of a “left bloc”. Instead they hope to stay true to the voters in Tory territory who took the “leap of faith” Davey asked them to as he plummeted on his bungee dive. Saunders says they could carve out a new political terrain because “everything is in flux”.

Seen in this way, perhaps his leap showed vim and gumption enough to satisfy even an Edwardian martinet. Or not. As Saunders observes: “It’s intensely to the discredit of our political culture that you have to fall off a paddle-board to get attention as a third party.”


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