Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 6 December 2019

Defectors seek to sweep-up anti-Brexit dissent

Wealthiest London districts have become crucial battlegrounds in UK election

Candidate Sam Gyimah and London Mayoral candidate, Siobhan Benita, emerge from the Liberal Democrat battle bus in London. Aaron Chown/PA
Candidate Sam Gyimah and London Mayoral candidate, Siobhan Benita, emerge from the Liberal Democrat battle bus in London. Aaron Chown/PA

The stately avenues, grand hotels and world-renowned shopping emporiums of West London impart a sense of permanent stability.

Yet with a general election set to cap a year of developing political chaos, the effects are rippling across the British capital’s richest streets.

Few could be a better symbol of the fast changing fortunes in public life than Sam Gyimah. At the start of 2019, he had a well-paid job for life but when voters go to the polls on December 12, he will be an upstart challenger pining for victory in upmarket Kensington.

Formerly the Conservative MP for a prosperous area south of London that had backed the ruling party for a century, Mr Gyimah gave it all up for Brexit.

After a series of clashes with the Conservative leadership he quit the party and in September joined the Liberal Democrats, the traditional third force in British politics but aligned with Mr Gyimah’s anti-Brexit views.

And it was why, the former prisons and science minister was this week pounding the streets working 16-hours a day in his new constituency in Kensington, west London, where he is involved in a close three-way battle before national elections on December 12.

In just a few minutes on the campaign trail, he extricated himself from a conversation from a constituent who was clearly not a fan, was collared by a woman with a community problem, and had his hand enthusiastically pumped by a smartly-dressed man, who asserted he would be the next MP.

He declined to answer questions from The National. But in a video message later posted for his supporters, Mr Gyimah said: “This election we face two extremes: a hard Brexit government or a hard-left government. Neither are good for this country and we don’t need to accept it.”

Mr Gyimah – who made a brief and largely unnoticed bid to run for leadership of the Conservative party in the summer - was sidelined after rebelling against the Brexit strategies of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his predecessor, Theresa May.

Now in the Liberal Democrat camp, he has joined a group of high-profile figures – new recruits and defectors - who have been parachuted into prominent London seats to spearhead the party’s election campaign.

They include Nicola Horlick – a businesswoman once dubbed ‘superwoman’ by the media for juggling a large family and City career – and Chuka Umunna, a smooth-talking lawyer who quit the Labour Party where he had once been tipped as a potential leader before it moved to the left under leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Luciana Berger, who quit the Labour party in February citing its failure to tackle anti-Semitism, is also fighting for the Liberal Democrats in Finchley and Golders Green in north London.

The latest poll of polls for the BBC suggest that Boris Johnson’s Conservatives are on course nationwide for 40 per cent of the vote, compared to 29 per cent for Labour and 15 per cent for the Liberal Democrats.

Britain’s voting system, a system that awards each of the 650 lower house seats based on battles in individual constituencies, means that the major parties are focused on a number of key marginals.

Despite being on course for victory, results in places like Kensington could deny the Conservatives a clear majority and continue the parliamentary deadlock that has repeatedly delayed Brexit since the June 2016 referendum.

Some of the Liberal Democrats’ key target seats are in areas where voters strongly backed remaining in the European Union – and the party hopes to tap into discontent with the Conservatives, whose mantra for the election is “Get Brexit Done”.

Ms Horlick is fighting the neighbouring constituency to Mr Gyimah’s, Chelsea and Fulham, which is home to some of London’s wealthiest residents and has been held by the ruling Conservatives since its creation in 2010.

Nicola Horlick, a businesswoman who is fighting the UK national elections in Chelsea and Fulham for the Liberal Democrats. Nishikant Gamre/The India Today Group
Nicola Horlick, a businesswoman who is fighting the UK national elections in Chelsea and Fulham for the Liberal Democrats. Nishikant Gamre/The India Today Group

Mr Umunna is fighting a constituency that includes London’s financial district, hoping to tap into concerns about what Brexit would mean to one of the country’s most lucrative industries.

In Wimbledon in London’s southwest, the Conservative incumbent, Stephen Hammond, has invoked the threat of a government under left-wing leader Mr Corbyn to encourage his voters to come out and vote.

Polls suggest that both Ms Horlick and Mr Gyimah are running a close second to the Conservative candidates in their seats. For Mr Gyimah, his success lies in trying to persuade traditional Labour party voters to switch from the current MP Emma Dent Coad to back his campaign.

Campaigners have also identified the Kensington seat as the one where the Muslim voter can have the most impact. Figures from the Muslim Council of Britain suggest that more than 5,000 voters are Muslim in a constituency that was won by Ms Dent Coad by just 20 votes two years ago.

A weekend poll suggested that if Labour voters switched from Ms Dent Coad, then he would win the seat at a canter. Mr Gyimah echoed the message claiming that the election in Kensington was a “two-horse race”.

“What the Liberal Democrats are doing in seats like that is making a Conservative win much more likely and making Brexit more likely,” said Kevin Brennan, a Labour candidate in Wales.

Ms Dent Coad – who won the seat by the tiniest margin at the last election in 2017 – is refusing to join forces to defeat the Conservatives, who are represented by Felicity Buchan, a local resident and Brexit-backer.

She has sharpened tensions by reporting Mr Gyimah to the police over comments suggesting that she was complicit in the safety failings that led to the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower in June 2017, which left 72 people dead.

The fire highlighted divisions in the area that is home to some of the Britain’s wealthiest but where some of London’s poorest residents lived in substandard accommodation.

The covered shell of the block is close to the station where Mr Gyimah embarked on his campaign on Wednesday. It was also where the tensions between the candidates were echoed between activists on the ground.

A group of crowdfunded left-wing activists – calling themselves the “Tories Out Propaganda Unit’ were handing out leaflets at a London Underground station where Mr Gyimah’s team had gathered before going out canvassing.

“He lied about Emma Dent Coad,” said a 30-year-old lecturer, who declined to be named, but said there was no prospect of an alliance to beat the Conservatives. “He was a Tory (Conservative) himself two months ago.”

Mr Gyimah received a partial endorsement from George Osborne, the finance minister under David Cameron, despite his defection from the Conservative Party. Mr Osborne is a Kensington resident and now edits London’s newspaper, the Evening Standard, which has its headquarters in the constituency.

He described Mr Gyimah as “bright and sensible” in a column for the Spectator magazine. “Do I vote for him, or for the party that — however wayward it’s become — gave me incredible opportunities for 20 years? We’ll see, but old habits die hard,” he wrote.

And in a sign of the intensity of the battle in true blue Chelsea and Fulham, Mr Osborne also last week paid tribute to Greg Hands, the Conservative incumbent, for his early hours campaign to meet voters at subway stations to fend off Mrs Horlick’s challenge.

Updated: November 23, 2019 04:41 PM

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