The Liberal Democrats will put all their campaign efforts into only one of two crucial byelections this summer – leaving Labour to fight the Tories in the other – as pressure intensifies on leftwing parties to work more closely together to oust the Conservatives from power.
The Lib Dem leader, Ed Davey, told the Observer on Saturday that his party would concentrate on the Devon seat of Tiverton and Honiton because it believes it can pull off a sensational win against the incumbent Conservatives in the south-west, where it has traditionally been strong.
But with resources and money limited, the Lib Dems know they can maximise their chances there only if they limit help for their candidate in the other contest, in Wakefield, where Labour is the traditional incumbent but was pushed into second by the Tories at the 2019 general election.
The two byelections – caused by the resignations of Tory MPs Neil Parish and Imran Ahmad Khan over sex-related sleaze scandals – are likely to be held on the same day on a byelection “super Thursday” in late June or early July. The double election is seen as a potentially critical moment for Boris Johnson’s administration.
If the prime minister were to lose both it would be another blow to his chances of surviving in office, showcasing his vulnerability to twin Lib Dem and Labour recoveries in their respective heartlands, following the Partygate scandal and with a cost of living crisis raging.
Without mentioning the Wakefield contest, Davey said: “Political parties always put resources where they can win, so we will be working incredibly hard to take the fight to the Tories in Tiverton and Honiton.”
With Labour certain to do the reverse, prioritising Wakefield while backing off in Tiverton and Honiton, there is now a growing focus on how far the parties on the centre-left should go in terms of cooperating – whether it be informal “one-off” arrangements, or more organised pacts, in order to dislodge the Tories.
A special constituency-level MRP survey of 10,000 voters, commissioned and published on Sunday by the pressure group Best for Britain, has found that if Labour, the Lib Dems and Greens came to formal agreements not to fight each other in 119 English seats at the next general election, they would be able to form a coalition government without relying on MPs from the Scottish National party.
However, if such pacts only happened between parties on the right and no such arrangements were made on the left, then Labour would fall short of that majority and could govern only by relying on the SNP.
Ukip stood down in seats where it risked splitting the rightwing vote when Theresa May was prime minister in 2017, and the Brexit party stood down for Johnson in 2019.
If past behaviour is any indication, Reform UK, the successor to the Brexit party, is likely to stand down to help the Conservatives if a Labour-led government looks likely at the next election.
The Best for Britain polling found that if the 2017 and 2019 situation were to be repeated with no similar arrangement on the left, then Labour would win 307 seats, the Tories 261, SNP 52, the Lib Dems 7, Plaid Cymru 4 and the Greens 1. This would not be enough for Labour to govern without the SNP.
However, if Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens were to play the rightwing parties at their own game, and agree to stand down candidates in order to maximise their chances of winning against the Tories, then Labour would win 323, the Tories 239, SNP 52, the Lib Dems 13, Plaid Cymru 4 and the Greens 1. Under this scenario Labour would be able to govern with the Lib Dems but without the SNP.
Naomi Smith, the CEO of Best for Britain, said: “To win, Labour needs to do what the Conservatives most fear them doing, and that’s working with the Lib Dems and the Greens at election time.
“The parties on the right stand down for each other to secure majority governments on a minority of the votes, and our data shows that the safest way for opposition parties to defeat this corrupt and failing government is to stand aside for one another in the seats they can’t win.
“We saw last week in the local elections that voters up and down the country are already collaborating to get rid of this government. Their party leaders need to catch up.”
Layla Moran, the Lib Dem MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, added: “In an election where the opposition vote is split, many voters will want to back the candidate who is most likely to win and deliver change. To this end we must be honest with each other about the situation in each constituency and ensure that the voters have the information they need to lock the Tories out of power.”
Caroline Lucas, the Green party MP for Brighton Pavilion, said: “This polling shows that in many constituencies, the Green party holds the key to beating the Conservatives, a point underlined by our strong performance in the recent local elections.”