Last night our MP Heidi Allen announced that she was relinquishing her status as an independent MP, and joining the Liberal Democrats. She was, of course, originally elected as a Conservative, but left the party a year ago. The move won’t have come as a surprise to many constituents, although Ms Allen seems to have been enjoying her independent status. But will it be possible for her to be re-elected at the next General Election? Or is Queen Edith’s destined to have a Conservative MP once more?
Unlike the rest of Cambridge, Queen Edith’s is part of the South Cambridgeshire parliamentary constituency, which surrounds much of the city and is one of the most rural in the country, with barely a single settlement having 10,000 people (Cambourne and Queen Edith’s are the largest population centres):
South Cambridgeshire was only created as a constituency 22 years ago, so we have just six General Elections to look back on. For the first four, we elected the Conservative Andrew Lansley as our MP, with a vote share that steadily increased from 42% in 1997 to 47% in 2010. When Lansley announced he was stepping down in 2015, Heidi Allen was selected by the Conservatives as his replacement, and we gave her an even larger vote share – 51% – which she maintained in 2017.
Andrew Lansley usually had a majority of around 15% over the Liberal Democrats in second place. However, the 2015 election saw a collapse of the Lib Dem vote, leaving Labour’s Dan Greef in second place – a huge 33% behind. Despite Labour’s vote share improving further in the 2017 election, Ms Allen still found herself with a majority of nearly 25%.
Heidi Allen has been a popular and conscientious MP, as a Conservative and as an independent. She was heavily involved in the formation of the Change UK party and drew a large supportive audience to a meeting in Queen Edith’s to explain what she was up to earlier this year. She has also appeared at community events in Queen Edith’s, and held surgeries and drop-in meetings here, most recently in September.
I have no doubt that under normal circumstances, the constituency would continue to elect a Conservative candidate in the next General Election. For one thing, 2017 probably marked a high-water mark for Labour party candidates nationally under the current leadership:
ComRes poll with changes on GE2017 outcome
CON: 33% (-10)
LAB: 27% (-14)
LD 19% (+12)
So a CON>LD swing of 11.5%
A LAB>LD swing of 13%
— Mike Smithson (@MSmithsonPB) October 7, 2019
But it may not be a foregone conclusion, for several reasons. To begin with, South Cambridgeshire was strongly pro-remain in the 2016 referendum:
This probably did not affect the 2017 General Election result too much, as all four candidates were ‘pro-remain’. Heidi Allen distanced herself from the national Conservative manifesto and ran her own literature, a sign of her deteriorating relationship with her party. If we have a General Election in 2019 or 2020 before the country leaves the EU, things might be different. The Conservatives have already selected a strongly pro-Brexit candidate (and a firm supporter of Boris Johnson) to replace Heidi Allen. How well that will go down is unknown. In addition, the 2015 General Election saw almost 10% of voters supporting the UKIP candidate, suggesting that a Brexit Party candidate could have an impact here.
There has also been a Lib Dem resurgence in the constituency, with a massive swing to the party in the 2018 council elections. On this alone (ignoring the candidates and national party trends for a moment), I would expect the Lib Dems to at least challenge Labour for second place. Add to this the undoubted popularity of Heidi Allen and the national swing as the opposition to the Conservatives away from Labour towards the Lib Dems, and we have to wonder if the 25% majority achieved by Ms Allen for the Conservatives could indeed be under threat.
What would it take? Here’s that 2017 vote in full:
Even if Labour were to field a candidate as good as Dan Greef (or perhaps he may be standing again), national trends still suggest that the party might lose at least 5% from that 27% to the Lib Dems. Local party trends (from last year’s council elections) suggest that the Conservatives could easily lose 10% from that 52% to the Lib Dems. That would put the Lib Dem candidate on 34% and the Conservative on 42% (less if the Brexit Party entered the mix).
The question would then be: could Heidi Allen’s popularity and track record bridge the gap? Certainly there’d have been no chance of her winning as an independent, and no chance of the Lib Dems winning without her, but I suspect we’ll discover that this is more than a marriage of convenience. Conservatives have been accusing Ms Allen of being a ‘closet liberal’ for two or three years; if she fits into the Liberal Democrat party well, it could be a close-run thing.