As voters prepare to head to the polls on Thursday in two by-elections, Sir Ed Davey suggested his party “could be on the verge of a historic victory” in the southwest constituency – overturning a 24,000 Tory majority.
The second ballot will be held in Wakefield – a “red wall” seat Sir Keir Starmer is hoping to seize back for Labour after it fell to the Tories at the 2019 election for the first time since the constituency was created in 1932.
Conservative MPs told The Independent at the weekend a double by-election defeat on Thursday would be a “disaster” for the embattled Boris Johnson, who narrowly survived a vote of no confidence a fortnight ago.
Writing in The Independent, polling expert Professor Sir John Curtice suggests that Labour “ought to have little difficulty” in winning the Wakefield by-election by achieving a swing of a little less than 4 per cent.
Many Tory MPs are privately expecting a “big defeat” in the Yorkshire constituency after a poll by JL Partners earlier this month gave Labour’s candidate Simon Lightwood a 20-point lead over his Tory rival, Nadeem Ahmed.
Sir John said a 20-point lead – representing a swing of around 14 per cent – is “probably the kind of result that the party needs to achieve if it is to suggest that it might be capable of posing a bigger threat to the Conservatives than it did at the last three general elections”.
In Tiverton and Honiton, however, the polling expert warned success for the Liberal Democrats “is by no means guaranteed”, and that the collapse of Labour support in the constituency “could well be crucial to the outcome”.
He added: “The party is still no stronger in the national polls than it was at the last general election – so it is wholly reliant on the momentum that it can generate locally. Success will depend not only its ability to garner the support of dissatisfied Conservatives but also the tactical support of those who would otherwise vote Labour.”
The former Conservative cabinet minister Kenneth Baker tore into Mr Johnson at a pre-by-election event, saying he had “no vision or strategy” and was leading his party to defeat.
Lord Baker, the Tory chairman under Margaret Thatcher, said the UK is crying out for “a healer”, like Harold MacMillan in the 1950s – but that is not the prime minister’s approach.
“Boris doesn’t do healing – he does confrontation, which he’s very good at. But this is not the feeling and the mood in the country at the moment,” the peer said.
Mr Johnson is “mainly concerned about headlines the following day”, he said, adding: “I can’t see how it becomes any better if he does survive for another two years.”
Vince Cable, the former Liberal Democrat cabinet minister, told the event, organised by the betting company $markets, that the prime minister might be tempted by a “risky” autumn general election.
“He’s a gambling man, he’s gambled successfully in the past,” Sir Vince said, adding there are rumours that preparations are underway.
Speaking before voters begin heading to the polls, Sir Ed said voters in Tiverton and Honiton are “fed up of Boris Johnson’s lies and neglect”, with families also facing soaring energy bills and increasing food prices.
“This is a once in a generation chance to end years of neglect and get a better deal for Devon, by backing the Liberal Democrats and Richard Foord,” he insisted.
“We could be on the verge of a historic victory, but it is now neck and neck between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives and every vote will count”.
But speaking in the Commons on Wednesday at Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Johnson appeared bullish about his party’s prospects.
He told MPs he had “absolutely no doubt” people in both constituencies “would much rather vote for a solid Conservative government than for a Labour Party, their enablers and acolytes in the Liberal Democrats, the karma chameleons of British politics”.
The Tiverton and Honiton by-election was triggered earlier this year after the resignation of former Tory MP Neil Parish, who was at the centre of a political storm after admitting watching pornography in the Commons chamber.
A vote was also triggered in the Wakefield seat, where the Tories have a majority of 3,358, after the former Conservative MP Imran Ahmad Khan was jailed following a conviction in April for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy.