Liberal Democrats set to jump back to forefront of UK politics

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The Liberal Democrats appear set to leap out of electoral irrelevance by quadrupling the number of MPs and reclaiming their position as the third-largest party in Westminster.

Riding a wave of discontent with the Conservatives and buoyed by widespread tactical voting, Sir Ed Davey’s party is forecast to return 61 MPs, its second-highest number since its foundation in 1988.

In 2005, the party won 62 seats under former leader Charles Kennedy and captured 22 per cent of the overall vote share. The exit poll, if borne out by results, would be a fourfold increase on the 15 MPs it currently has.

The party is expected to take large swaths of the affluent south that had been considered Tory heartlands, including seats in Surrey and Hampshire. During the six-week campaign it launched an offensive in seats along the south linking London to Land’s End, which it labelled “Project A30”.

Davey said the party was “on course for our best results in a century”, a claim that includes the period when it was the Liberal party prior to the merger with the Social Democratic party 36 years ago. If the Lib Dems capture 29 new seats it would be its largest gain in constituencies since the 1923 election.

“I am humbled by the millions of people who backed the Liberal Democrats to both kick the Conservatives out of power and deliver the change our country needs,” Davey said.

The Lib Dems were almost annihilated in 2015 after five years in coalition with the Tories, during which they infamously dropped their pledge to scrap tuition fees. They lost nearly 50 seats, reducing them to a rump of just eight.

The exit poll on Thursday evening suggested the party would topple heavyweights in British politics including chancellor Jeremy Hunt in Godalming and Ash and justice secretary Alex Chalk in Cheltenham.

The party is also on course to win one seat from Labour, Sheffield Hallam, once the seat of former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg.

Andrew Russell, professor of politics at Liverpool university, said the projected results were “beyond the party’s wildest dreams”. He said the Lib Dems had benefited from their “ABC strategy” — drumming up tactical support for “Anyone but the Conservatives” — and from a lack of “magnetism” towards Labour.

The Lib Dems fought a tightly focused campaign that devoted resources to about 80 seats, the vast majority held by the Conservatives in the south of England. Earlier this year, Davey dubbed his party the “Tory Removal Service”.

Many of the “western wedge” seats the Lib Dems are expected to win — including Taunton and Wellington and Yeovil — had previously been held by the party but were taken by the Conservatives in 2015.

The Lib Dems’ staunchly anti-Brexit position in the run-up to the 2019 election further alienated many voters in the West Country, which had firmly voted Leave.

Davey has steered clear of placing relations between Britain and Europe at the centre of the Lib Dem campaign this time; an ambition to rejoin the EU was buried on page 112 of the party’s manifesto.

The party leader fought a campaign centred on attention-grabbing gimmicks that started with him slipping off a paddle-board into the waters of Windermere and culminated in the final week in him bungee-jumping while shouting: “Do something you’ve never done before, vote Liberal Democrat.”

Chris Hopkins, political research director at pollster Savanta, said he believed the transfer of seats from the Tories to the Lib Dems could be “a sign of actual long-term voter movement”, in contrast to the expected shift of some Tory votes to Reform.

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