Three-way by-election battle offers hope to Tories as Lib Dems scrap with Labour

In normal circumstances, the Conservative party should easily win Thursday’s by-election in Mid Bedfordshire, a well-heeled rural seat that delivered it a majority of almost 25,000 at the last general election.

Instead the Tories, trailing badly in national opinion polls, are locked in an occasionally acrimonious three-way by-election fight; Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s party is also defending a majority of almost 20,000 in Tamworth on the same day.

But it is Mid Beds that has captured the political imagination. The vote is shaping up to be a rare fight between the Conservatives and both Labour and the Liberal Democrats in a crucial test of political opinion.

The Lib Dems started the campaign as the bookmakers’ favourites but were supplanted by Labour. The odds now narrowly favour the Tories.

Tory officials claim that Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s recent promise to “bulldoze” planning rules has helped to swing votes in the final days of the campaign in an area where development is a hot political issue.

Labour’s campaign chief Peter Kyle, shadow science minister, was sent to Mid Bedfordshire four months ago by Starmer to sniff the air and see if there was any prospect that the party might win. He is still there.

Labour campaign chief Peter Kyle: ‘Winning here was always a moonshot. So far we’ve got everything right. We’ve just got to land’ © Anna Gordon/FT

Sitting in the The Albion pub in the town of Ampthill, a weary Kyle said months of door-knocking was paying off: “Winning here was always a moonshot,” he said. “So far we’ve got everything right. We’ve just got to land.”

That will be the tricky bit. Because Mid Beds, a seat abandoned by former Tory minister Nadine Dorries, has turned into a highly unpredictable scrap to the finish.

The area of countryside 50 miles north of London — comprising several small towns and dozens of villages — previously would have been a banker for Sunak.

But opinion polls earlier in the campaign suggested the Conservative vote had collapsed. An internal party memo, obtained by Sky News, suggested on Tuesday that the party’s vote share in Mid Beds and Tamworth could approximately halve compared with the 2019 election.

But unusually, in Mid Beds, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are both vying to defeat the Tories. The opposition vote could split and help Sunak come through the middle with a morale-boosting victory.

Kyle admitted he had been driven “spare” by Lib Dem leaflets, claiming to show the centre party’s arrowing upwards, overtaking the Tories and leaving Labour trailing.

The bookmakers’ odds, however, have suggested the Tories are edging ahead of Labour, with Lib Dem support fading. All sides admit it is too close to call.

Kyle was first sent to Mid Beds by Starmer in June when Dorries, a former Tory minister, announced her “immediate” plan to quit parliament after failing to secure a peerage in former prime minister Boris Johnson’s resignation list.

But Dorries delayed her formal resignation until August, forcing the contest to rage on for months.

Alistair Strathern, the Labour candidate, said his party had fought a positive campaign, refraining from personal attacks. But, he added: “This seat has never been Labour before.”

The Lib Dems argue that given the rural nature of the seat, Labour can never win in Mid Beds, and have engaged in what Kyle called an “aggressive and disingenuous” campaign against Strathern.

Labour threatened to go to the police if the Lib Dems carried on claiming that Strathern, raised locally but until recently a local councillor in London, did not live in the constituency. He recently moved back to the area.

Emma Holland-Lindsay, the Lib Dem candidate, insisted she is the true local candidate, with ancestors going back generations. “People like the fact that I’m Bedfordshire through and through,” she said.

Lib Dem candidate Emma Holland-Lindsay: ‘I’m Bedfordshire through and through’ © Anna Gordon/FT

Labour and Lib Dems agree that being “local” has become a hot issue, partly because Dorries effectively became an absentee MP in the latter stages of her parliamentary career.

Holland-Lindsay said Lib Dem charts, which claim the party is ahead, are based on canvass returns, adding that Labour has made questionable claims, including that the Lib Dems would arm nuclear submarines with “fake missiles”.

The bickering has been seized upon by the Conservative candidate Festus Akinbusoye, who said that while the two opposition parties fight each other, he was “focused on campaigning for people on the doorstep”.

Tory candidate Festus Akinbusoye: ‘Keir Starmer has been talking about building on the “grey belt”. What the hell is that?’

Akinbusoye, a local police and crime commissioner, is also playing what he hopes is another trump card: Starmer’s recent promise to rewrite planning rules, including allowing homes to be built on unsightly parts of the greenbelt.

Akinbusoye said: “Keir Starmer has been talking about building on the ‘grey belt’. What the hell is that? People are so fed up with top-down housing targets.”

Kyle said the planning issue — in an area where many homes have been built without accompanying schools, GP surgeries or transport — could swing votes for the Tories but sees little sign of that happening.

“The Tories think this is their Ulez,” he said, referring to the successful Conservative campaign against a tax on highly polluting cars in July’s Uxbridge by-election.

“But people here aren’t anti-development per se. They just object to diggers turning up at the end of their street when they haven’t been consulted.”

The result of the Mid Beds by-election is not expected until the early hours of Friday, with all sides admitting that it might be so tight that a recount may be required. 

Akinbusoye said his fate could be determined by how many Tory voters stay at home. But Kyle said the outcome is more complicated than that. “The Tories have never campaigned here — they have never needed to,” he says. “There is no reference point.”

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