3h agoLabour will use AI to speed up benefit claims and match unemployed people with jobs
4h agoBiden and Sunak are on the same page - with the US-UK alliance needed as much as ever
5h agoTurkey will sign off on Sweden joining Nato, says alliance's chief

Somerton and Frome by-election: Lib Dems close polling gap in safe Tory seat with eleven days to go

Lib Dem Sarah Dyke is quietly confident of overturning a 19,213 Tory majority in Somerton and Frome

Arriving in the Somerset village of Templecombe there are Liberal Democrat placards aplenty. The by-election specialists are at it again.

This latest mid-term poll has been caused by the resignation of David Warburton, who was suspended from the Conservative Party over allegations of sexual misconduct.

Warburton, who denied the sex allegations but admitted to taking cocaine after drinking “incredibly potent” Japanese whisky, leaves a healthy majority of 19,213 behind him.

Usually that would be considered all but impossible impenetrable, but we do not live in normal times.

During its 40-year existence the Somerton and Frome constituency has been shared by the Tories and Lib Dems but, after 18-years as a Lib Dem seat, returned to the Conservatives in 2015 and has remained with the party ever since.

However, given the Lib Dems recent by-election successes – not least the overturning of a 24,239 Tory majority in Tiverton and Honiton just over a year ago – the bookies have the party’s candidate Sarah Dyke as odds-on favourite to give take her party’s numbers in the House of Commons to 15.

There’s a clear confidence about her, but she’s not prepared to speak to it yet. But with the Government’s inner turmoil not easing since last June, she clearly has hope.

“Well, I won my first election on the district council here in South Somerset by one vote in 2015,” she says. “I did that by going out and knocking on every door, and that’s what I’m doing now.”

Dyke, whose family has been farming land around Templecombe since 1763, is aware, however, that of the three by-elections forced by departing Tories, this is the one the Lib Dems are banking on.

As soon as Warburton announced his resignation in in mid-June, the yellow army invaded this rural idyl.

“My phone went absolutely crazy with the news that he had just resigned,” says Dyke. “So, from that moment on, it was literally let’s get on with this job.

“The HQ team came down and within 48 hours had set up our HQ offices in Frome.”

So, when she’s knocking on those doors, what are the voters telling her? They are, she says, “furious, angry, and fed up”.

“They are fed up with the wait for a GP appointment, a dentist, with the cost-of-living crisis, the state of the NHS and all public services.

“They are fed-up with 13 years of this Government and they are coming back to the Liberal Democrats.”

Dyke runs through the Lib Dem policies, such as reversing £3bn of Tory tax cuts for banks to spend on helping people with soaring mortgage costs, and a “plan to recruit 8,000 more GPs”.

Faye Purbrick (left) with former Prime Minister Theresa May (centre) during her campaign to become an MEP in May 2019 (Photo: Toby Melville/PA Wire)
Faye Purbrick, left, with former Prime Minister Theresa May (centre) during her campaign to become an MEP in May 2019 (Photo: Toby Melville/PA Wire)

While the bookies may have Dyke as the overwhelming favourite to take the seat back for her party, she has stiff opposition in Conservative candidate Faye Purbrick, an experienced and competent politician.

The first question to Purbrick is the reverse of that put to Dyke. Is she confident of protecting the enormous majority of 19,213?

In normal times the answer would be a simple one, but she’s seen the internal Lib Dem polling of 10,000 voters from last week.

That showed support for the Tories has fallen from 55.8 per cent at the December 2019 general election to 44.5 per cent. Lib Dem backing had jumped from 26.2 per cent to 36.5 per cent.

With just eleven days to go until the polls open on 20 July, Lib Dem sources are saying that gap has narrowed further, and the result is going to be “very tight”.

That’s Lib Dem for “we’ve got this in the bag”.

Purbrick’s first answer reflects that the momentum is with her rival.

“I think we should never take our electorate for granted and in the same way that I worked hard to serve the people I have as a councillor I’ll look to be able to show people my track record and why they should support me,” says Purbrick.

However, telling people on the doorstep that the Conservatives are the party to trust with the economy can be a tough task.

“We have had the fastest growth in the G7,” she adds, though others have said this may have been true in the immediate aftermath of the Covid pandemic from 2021 to 2022, but has not been true since and that when comparing quarter-on-quarter growth in 2022, the UK is among worst-performing in the G7.

“They are not figures I recognise,” says Purbrick.

As for the condition of the economy she maintains the party line that “we’ve been hit by two huge events in Covid and the war in Ukraine” and that “if we all work together we will get through this”.

Purbrick quotes the CCHQ line less when it comes to local issues, insisting she will lobby Westminster for better broadband connectivity, flood protection and “fighting hard” for cash for local schools, the NHS and other public services.

“I am working to be the MP Somerton and Frome,” she adds. “Standing up for the people in Somerton and Frome.

“Making sure that the Government is listening to what we need here. I will be an MP not a member of Government.

“I will be holding them to account in the way that an MP is supposed to, to make sure that people here have the best possible outcomes. That’s what I care about.”

While Purbrick has a chance of clinging on to this seat for the Tories, albeit a rapidly shrinking one, the likelihood that Labour can go from a poor third with just 13 per cent of the vote in December 2019 to take a seat is slim.

But that’s not putting off Neil Guild, Sir Keir Starmer’s representative in this by-election.

“A good result for Labour is winning this seat,” he says. OK, but what will you really consider a success? Forcing the Tories into a humiliating third place maybe?

“I’m always going to fight for the Labour Party,” he adds. “If, ultimately, the public decides something different than absolutely, I’ll accept that, but, yes, I do want to show progress.”

As the holiday traffic floods in, the slow going allow times to count the signs. It’s no more than anecdotal evidence, but between Frome and the bit of the A303 where the constituency ends there were 27 Liberal Democrat placards, three supporting the Conservatives and one for Labour.

Indeed, there were more Green Party signs being displayed in the front gardens of voters than there were Tory and Labour put together.

It’s hard not to believe the Lib Dems will be more disappointed not to win this one than the Tories will be to lose it.

There are eight candidates standing in the Somerton and Frome by-election. The remain five are Lorna Corke (Christian Peoples Alliance), Martin Dimery (Green Party), Bruce Evans (Reform UK), Rosie Mitchell (Independent), and Peter Richardson (UK Independence Party).

Most Read By Subscribers