Constituency review 2: Mid-Cornwall – Truro/Falmouth and St Austell/Newquay

The two mid-Cornwall constituencies are very different but at the same time deceptively similar. Different in that Truro & Falmouth was the only constituency to have voted Remain last year while St Austell & Newquay was the most inclined to Brexit. Different too in that Truro & Falmouth has the highest number of well-paid, public sector workers and the electorate with the highest qualifications. It’s also the one part of Cornwall which has benefited from globalization, although paying the price for this with mounting capacity issues and environmental pressures. Meanwhile, St Austell & Newquay has the lowest number of highly educated voters and economically has … well, Newquay.

But they’re also similar. Both have a solid bedrock Tory vote of near half the electorate on current predictions, but with some uncertainty about who’s in the best position to challenge the incumbent. Both have Tory MPs who might not be all they appear to be.

In St Austell & Newquay Steve Double comfortably won the seat in 2015 by over 8,000 votes. Part of his appeal lay in his evangelical religious background, attracting those who pray for a return of strong family values. That didn’t last too long though, as a year after the election Steve’s affair with his young case worker came to light, triggering much outrage and shock from some of his constituents.

Steve and friend

Nonetheless, this doesn’t seem to have harmed his chances. Quite the opposite in fact, as his support has grown faster than any of our Tory MPs if polls are to be believed. There may be a lesson here for those who believe in traditional family values. Or more likely he’s getting the benefit of the large Ukip vote (the highest in Cornwall) in St Austell & Newquay in 2015. With no Ukip candidate this time, these voters will most likely swallow any doubts and swing behind him.

Among the predictable platitudes, Steve Double is working to bring a spaceport to Newquay, handy for all those Martians who might fancy a holiday and snap up a second home on the coast while they’re about it. In similar science fiction mode, he promises us that all EU money will be replaced by Westminster. If you believe that, then you’re presumably already letting out your spare room via Airbnb to those same Martians.

Previous Lib Dem MP Stephen Gilbert is in a fight for second place but has zero to little chance of unseating Double. Gilbert’s campaign got off to a rocky start when he cocked up the date of the election, thus confusing the folk of St Austell & Newquay even more than usual. Then it was alleged he’d called the two thirds of voters in the constituency who’d voted for Brexit ‘fuckwits’ in a tweet just after last year’s referendum (in the bargain doing it from Greece, just to make the EU obsessives go really apeshit).

Gilbert, memorably described in 2015 by a miffed Steve Double as a ‘master of half-truths and misrepresentations’ is now desperately pleading for ‘tactical’ voting. This could be a joke, but he cites ‘independent analysis’ that shows that ‘voting Labour in St Austell & Newquay will lead to a Tory’. Which is a bit of an odd claim as voting Lib Dem in 2010 also led to a Tory, namely himself. His voting record in 2010-15 was in fact pretty indistinguishable from the Tories and he was even rumoured at one stage to be considering deserting the Lib Dems for the Tories.

In any case, the ‘independent analysis’ is no such thing. It’s a quick guess by TacticalVoting 2017 based purely on the results last time. Given that the pollsters are informing us that Labour’s Kevin Neil is vying with Gilbert for second place, with both at least 20 points behind the Tory, the blanket tactical voting zealots are merely succeeding in sowing even more confusion.

As they are in the other mid-Cornwall seat of Truro & Falmouth. Here, Labour’s Jayne Kirkham looks to have momentum (!) and be firmly established as the clear alternative to the sitting MP Sarah Newton, the thinking person’s Theresa May. The latest YouGov prediction has Kirkham a full 11 points ahead of the Lib Dems and an equal amount behind Newton. Yet, bizarrely, TacticalVoting 2017 is still ‘advising’ people to vote Lib Dem in Truro & Falmouth and thus waste their vote. The Labour surge in Truro & Falmouth (mainly the latter) comes despite a far more competent and convincing Lib Dem candidate than last time in the shape of local Truro councillor Rob Nolan.

During the last election, I wrote that Sarah Newton floated serenely above the political fray, living in an Alice in Wonderland world where Tories never lied and where cutting disability benefits was a shining example of ‘improving people’s lives’. Little has changed. She still utters vacuous nonsense at regular intervals and gives every impression of actually believing it. Yet somehow I can’t shake off the impression that, behind the bland Stepford-wife exterior, lurks something darker and far more menacing. Anyway, she looks to be the perfect Tory for this most middle class and academically qualified of Cornwall’s constituencies, one where most folk moan about the developer-led destruction of their environment but do little about it as long as they can get parked at Waitrose.

There are a couple of other candidates here. The Green Party’s Amanda Pennington should have been looking to capitalise on the student and heart-on-the-sleeve liberal vote in this constituency. But that’s been dashed by the Labour surge and the mindless rush to vote ‘tactically’ for the wrong candidate. Although, oddly for a Green candidate, she’s in favour of expanding Newquay airport, Amanda is worth considering as, realistically, Labour won’t win here. Or at least, not in this election.

A vote for the Greens would also be a good idea in order to outpoll Ukip’s sole candidate in Cornwall, Duncan Odgers. He promises to fight ‘for the rights of the electorate’ who of course now have their country (and ours) back. Worryingly however, Duncan appears to think Ukip’s Paul Nuttall is ‘agenda setting’. Those whom the Gods … etc. At least he appeared on the Sunday Politics show wearing a Cornish rugby shirt and advertising Tribute. Pity about the accent though.

In short, in both the mid-Cornwall constituencies the Tory is too far ahead to be seriously threatened. Calls for ‘tactical’ voting are misplaced and serve merely to confuse. They can be safely ignored as the real battle is to claim bragging rights as the best placed challenger at the next election.

Lib Dems walking the walk

Since the May Queen announced her pending coronation on June 8th there’s been a flurry of activity by Liberal Democrats in Cornwall. And some confusion.

First, the known knowns. To everyone’s huge delight Andrew George has reluctantly allowed himself to be convinced by squillions of people on Facebook to stand again against the evil Tory Derek Thomas in St Ives. At the joyous news folk in Penzance and St Ives were reported to be falling down in the streets with uncontrollable fits of ecstacy. Others began speaking in tongues. The price of saffron on the commodities exchange also rose by a couple of pence at the news before falling back to its normal level. Andrew is now be-friending all and sundry in the Facebook universe as the first part of his cunning plan to get elected.

More quietly and less dramatically, Dan Rogerson has confirmed what you read about here six days ago. He’ll definitely be a candidate in North Cornwall. Finally, something you also read here, Rob Nolan has announced his candidature at Truro & Falmouth.

Stephen Gilbert (right) and friend

Which leaves us with a known unknown. More surprising is the unconfirmed report in the West Brit that Stephen Gilbert has risen from the grave and is ‘set to challenge Steve Double‘ in St Austell & Newquay. Gilbert, who was fairly indistinguishable from the Tories in the coalition government from 2010-15, sank without trace after the last election. Indeed, many people in St Austell still haven’t realised he’s been replaced by Steve Double, so close are their politics.

Unlike George and Rogerson, Gilbert did not spend time working his old constituency and ensuring media coverage. Instead he was last heard of in March 2016 accepting a place on a postgraduate teaching course at St Austell, to begin last September. Surely the terrifying prospects of doing a useful job and teaching are not trumped by returning to the cosy Commons club?

The mystery deepens when we find that Joanna Kenny, Watford-born Cornwall Councillor for Newquay Pentire, is still listed on the Lib Dems’ official website as their ‘snap general election candidate’, campaigning on issues of dog shit and playgrounds. Kenny’s own Facebook page offers no hint of her candidature.

It was The Silent Majority (?) of St Austell Speak Out’s Facebook page that broke the shocking news yesterday morning of Gilbert’s candidacy. It claimed that Kenny had broken both her legs in a ski-ing accident (on a clay tip??) and been sadly forced to retire. Stephen Gilbert has therefore been hauled back into the frame, we have no knowledge of how unwillingly.

Fake news? It’s reliably reported that Steve Double, the most impressive of Cornwall’s trio of new Tory MPs, is not too perturbed by either prospect.

General election: the return of the Liberal Democrats?

This snappiest of snap elections seems to have caught everyone on the hop. Why were we all fooled by Theresa May’s carefully crafted image as a latter-day Thatcher, given the number of U-turns she’s performed since taking over? But we were. Sage statements about fixed five-year terms and being too busy to be distracted by an election, while having absolutely no intention of cutting and running for a grubby power grab, lulled us into a false sense of security.

Just as we were concentrating on worrying how soon Trump and his generals would blunder into a nuclear holocaust, the Tories took our minds off that little problem by calling an election. The temptation of a 20% poll lead in the end proved too much for them, as the Conservative Party responded like Pavlov’s dogs to the one thing it always prioritised. Power. And as much of it as possible.

They also start their snappy election with a huge advantage over the opposition generally. At this stage of the Parliament there are few prospective candidates in place. If you’re not a sitting MP you won’t have the usual time to ease yourself into a constituency, pester the local media with unctuous press releases and generally glad-hand the great unwashed at fetes and festivals for all you’re worth. Instead, there’s just 22 days left to get selected and then another four weeks before the electorate exercises its measured and thoroughly considered decision.

Candidates who are already locally known could however narrow the gap to sitting MPs. The most exciting point for me on Tuesday, when the election was announced, was the news via twitter that Kernow King was going to stand for Talskiddy Treacle Mine. Sadly this turned out be one of those fake news items, a bitter disappointment to all and sundry. In the absence of KK, we have to make do with Liberal Democrats. You might not have realised it, but because Cornwall is one of their few obvious targets, that party has got its potential candidates lined up in five of the six seats.

In South East Cornwall, Phil Hutty is standing again against the redoubtably seasoned Sheryll Murray. Although her massive 17,000 vote majority two years back, over 50% of the poll, plus a decent Ukip vote to mop up, means it looks like more of a case of curtains again for Phil, who any rational observer would say hasn’t the proverbial cat’s chance in hell.

Dan Rogerson will have a lot more chance in North Cornwall. He’ll be relieved his constituency has been accidentally reprieved by the Tories’ casual binning of the fixed-term parliament act and the consequent boundary changes which bring a devonwall constituency with them. That horrendous prospect has not gone away, note, just been postponed, to hang like Damocles’ sword over the Tamar as it peacefully snakes its way to the sea.

Further west are two constituencies where the Lib Dems have put Cornwall Councillors in place as candidates. In St Austell & Newquay Joanna Kenny is attempting to follow the Tories’ Steve Double and Scott Mann and make the leap from local government to the Commons. According to the Lib Dems’ website her current campaigns ‘include upgrading her local playground and dealing with the perennial problem of irresponsible dog owners.’ Which should get the assorted plutocrats and madmen who try to run things these days quaking in their boots. ‘Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump, have you got your poo-bags with you?’

In Truro & Falmouth Rob Nolan carries the Lib Dem banner and looks a more credible MP. Rob has an excellent record of striving, often against the direction of his own party, to moderate Cornwall Council’s mad infatuation with housing and population growth as it rushes to transform Cornwall into a replica of everywhere else as quickly as possible. His only problem is that Sarah Newton had a huge 14,000 vote majority last time around, converting Truro & Falmouth into a safe Tory seat. Except that, with its relatively high number of public sector professionals in Truro and its Guardian-reading intelligentsia and student voters at the universities at Penryn, the constituency doesn’t feel like a bog-standard safe Tory haven in the shires. There’s also a sizeable Labour and Green vote to try to squeeze.

The Lib Dems’ best hope of winning a seat back from the Tories clearly comes in St Ives. Andrew George has been pushing hard for a ‘progressive alliance’ between Lib Dems, Labour, MK and Green people since being beaten in 2015 by Derek Thomas. Cynics might say he would, wouldn’t he. But, as the most independent of Cornwall’s Lib Dem MPs during their disastrous 2015 coalition with the Tories he can distance himself somewhat from any toxic fall-out that may linger among voters. Moreover, most of them seem to have distressingly short political memories.

However, for his call on members of other parties to support him, the Lib Dems surely need to make some reciprocal gestures. Having spurned the chance to do so at the local elections, what are they now proposing? For starters, how about offering to stand down in Brighton and give Caroline Lucas a clear run in return for no Green in St Ives? As Green Party overtures to Labour and Liberal Democrats seem to be being rejected out of hand, there looks little chance of this. The opposition unionist parties are stubbornly determined to prefer suicide to any hint of official collaboration or new thinking. Strange.

Let’s not forget the final constituency – Camborne-Redruth. Here, the Liberal Democrats have no candidate that I can spot, but neither does Labour, although this is supposedly one of their target seats and the only one in Cornwall where they have any chance at all. Nor is George Eustice’s 7,000 vote majority by any means the safest. With no obvious well-known local Labour figure in the frame (or Lib Dem come to that) developments must be awaited. The only thing there is general agreement on is, whatever you do, please, please don’t inflict Michael Foster on us again. (Or Julia Goldsworthy come to that.)