Liberal Democrats set seat target high - but can they win over the Tory Remain areas they are aiming for?

Allegra Stratton

Former National Editor

The Liberal Democrats made a bold campaign stop on Thursday - heading to Leave-voting Jacob Rees Mogg’s seat of North East Somerset.

Devon and Cornwall used to be a Lib Dem stronghold until 2015, their ‘yellow wall’.

We know they are targeting Tory Remain seats, but now we’re being asked to believe they can get high profile Leave seats.

I haven’t yet been to North East Somerset, but I think this must be more about the Lib Dems firing up their base by attacking Jacob Rees-Mogg.

It won't be plain sailing for the Lib Dems in their bid to claim 100 seats. Credit: ITV News

There are a dozen easier seats many expect the Lib Dems to win. You know the score - high proportions of Remain voters currently represented uncomfortably by Conservatives: Winchester, Cheltenham, Lewes, Gloucester.

Elsewhere the party is more daringly ‘shooting for the moon’ – positioned in third place but believing they can catapult into first place in Remain places like Kensington, the Cities of London and Westminster; Finchley and Golders Green (you'd better get going on your election 2019 top trumps).

The 1,000 year old market town of Newbury narrowly voted Remain. Credit: ITV News

But the party is not content with this kind of target list - senior figures talk up their chances. I’ve seen quite alarming results inflation, going from its current 19 seats up to 60, 100 and 200. These possible gains are bandied around interchangeably.

There’s a reason for this. The Lib Dems have to do an unusual kind of expectation management; they have to manage people’s expectations up. If people can be convinced that they are going to win big time they might be more likely to give them their vote.

This is particularly true with the Lib Dem’s ‘revoke the referendum’ pledge. How can they credibly offer to do this if they are only one of the smaller parties? Not even Remain alliance - candidates from the Lib Dems, Greens and Plaid Cymru standing aside in favour of the Remain candidate most likely to win - is likely to make the difference in massive numbers of seats.

Will locals vote primarily on their 2016 Brexit Remain instincts? Credit: ITV News

We headed to Newbury, Berkshire to see whether the party really can bite deeply into their Tory opponents.

It is 52% remain – not sky high but pretty sizable. Its Tory MP Richard Benyon is standing down, meaning the Tories lose their incumbency factor too.

Mr Benyon has his critics nationally (recent controversy over his company Englefield Estate business, for example) but he was a popular local Remain MP and, in general, incumbency is thought to count for quite a bit.

Will locals vote primarily on their 2016 Brexit Remain instincts? Will that mean they plump for the Lib Dems? Or have enough of those 52% Remain decided the battle is done?

Remember the electorate here voted Tory as recently as 2017. It has a low unemployment rate (3%), and Vodafone based in the constituency. It seems to be a liberal conservative patch rather than fertile ground for Corbynistas, (but we’ll see, that may not be accurate).

There is a second worry for the Lib Dems that the 2019 election ends up not being about Brexit. Credit: PA

Might Newbury Remain voters fear the Liberal Democrats are too far away from power and – preferring Boris Johnson’s Brexit done deal to a Jeremy Corbyn’s future deal – hold tight for fear of something worse?

Might they prefer Boris Johnson’s conservatism over Jeremy Corbyn’s socialism? We’re told voters no longer see politics in terms of left or right (that the Overton window has shifted and Corbyn’s left wing politics are now mainstream); over the course of this campaign I’ll be looking to see if that’s still right.

And then there is a second worry for Lib Dems - that the 2019 election ends up not being about Brexit. No one yet knows what issues will actually get people’s juices flowing.

Newbury racecourse. Credit: ITV News

Bu the Liberal Democrats need it to be about Brexit; Brexit is their baking powder, it’s the ingredient that makes them rise. But if the electorate decides it wants to talk about public spending, I know seasoned observers of the party that think this current Lib Dem party would struggle to get distinction, and produce a rival public spending plan, clearly different from the Tories and as generous as Labour’s.

After all, the party is now composed of exiled Labour MPs alongside exiled Tory MPs. Former Tory but now Lib Dem candidate Sam Gyimah used to be a fiscal Conservative, he’s now in a party alongside former Labour moderate Luciana Berger who is more of a social democrat (believes in the power of state spending). There will be issues on which they can’t agree.

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