How middle England opened up record Liberal Democrat gains


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Good morning. The new parliament met properly for the first time yesterday to re-elect the Commons Speaker. One of many differences between this parliament and the last is that there are many more Liberal Democrat MPs in it: at 72 it is a record high in their modern history.

Some thoughts on why that happened at this election in today’s note.

Inside Politics is edited by Georgina Quach. Read the previous edition of the newsletter here. Please send gossip, thoughts and feedback to insidepolitics@ft.com

No more blue horizons

Just as in 1964, 1974 and 1997, Labour’s return to government this year was accompanied by Liberal — or latterly, Liberal Democrat — gains. I have my own thoughts about why Labour did as well as expected in terms of parliamentary seats, but underperformed in terms of votes cast, to which I’ll return at a later date. Part of what happened in this election was an incredible willingness on the part of Labour voters to vote tactically for the Lib Dems, and for Lib Dem voters to vote tactically for the Labour party, to oust the Tory incumbent.

But I think what we also saw was an old story in British politics, which is that one prerequisite for the Liberal Democrats to do well is that the Labour leader does not frighten middle England. Time and time again in 2019, when I travelled to the parts of the country where the Liberal Democrats were competing for seats with the Conservatives, I heard the same refrain: I like the Lib Dems, I hate Brexit, I can’t stand Boris Johnson, but I can’t vote Lib Dem because I am frightened of a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn.

I heard a similar message, albeit at a lesser pitch, about Labour under Ed Miliband in 2015. One reason why I don’t think the story of the hung parliament in 2017 is quite as simple as “people voted for Jeremy Corbyn because they thought he couldn’t win” is that people were also willing to vote Lib Dem— I think in that campaign, a combination of what Labour got right and the Tories got wrong meant that there was genuinely less fear of Corbyn than there was of Miliband in 2015 or Corbyn in 2019.

When I speak to almost any veteran Lib Dem I hear something similar. So part of why the party made gains last week is that people did not fear Keir Starmer and were therefore willing to vote Lib Dem. It helped them further that Ed Davey fought an intelligent, eye-catching campaign that kept his party in the public eye and inspired affection in him personally. It helped, too, that Rishi Sunak fought such a maladroit campaign.

Now try this

(Georgina) I felt really lucky to be able to visit Japan last month, which was truly amazing. We didn’t get tickets to the Ghibli museum despite staying up into the small hours to log on . . . but we did get the most delicious ramen in a subway station in Tokyo for less than £10 (the sister restaurant is in the Michelin guide). I also quite enjoyed Carrie Sun’s very vivid memoir Private Equity on the plane.

Top stories today

  • Starmer’s first overseas trip | The prime minister said he will set out a “road map” for the UK to raise defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP, as he travels to Washington for a Nato summit where he will meet Joe Biden and other world leaders.

  • Meet the new attorney-general | Suzi Ring and Lucy Fisher profile the newly-appointed attorney-general for England and Wales Richard Hermer KC, who has been a key figure in several contentious cases where the UK government’s conduct in sensitive foreign policy matters was scrutinised.

  • ‘Frank discussions’ | Kemi Badenoch criticised Rishi Sunak for not consulting his cabinet before calling a snap July 4 election and for his “disastrous” decision to return early from D-Day commemorations, according to people briefed on the shadow cabinet meeting yesterday.

  • I’m feeling 22 | Veteran Tory MP Bob Blackman has been elected chair of the backbench 1922 committee, having received 61 votes (roughly half of the Conservative parliamentary party). Mark Francois, a leading Eurosceptic Conservative MP, stormed out of the committee room after missing the vote. “The 1922 competency levels have reached a new low which is saying something. This election is bent.”

  • England’s mayors gathered in Downing Street | The dozen English elected mayors are in the process of drawing up and presenting their own local strategies for economic growth to Keir Starmer’s ministers.

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