Labour “can win” Nadine Dorries’ seat in a by-election triggered by her exit, the party’s chairwoman has said as it vies with the Liberal Democrats to snap up Mid Bedfordshire.
The Conservative former culture secretary finally handed in her resignation 11 weeks after she vowed to go, leaving Prime Minister Rishi Sunak facing another potentially damaging electoral test this autumn as his party languishes in the national polls.
Anneliese Dodds said the people of Mid Bedfordshire now have the chance to vote for “change” as she hit the campaign trail with Labour’s candidate Alistair Strathern on Sunday.
“Many people would have said it would be impossible for Labour to overturn a 25,000 Conservative majority, but we know the only poll that’s taken place in this constituency shows that Labour can win here,” she told activists and reporters.
“We’ve got a brilliant candidate in Alistair, someone who will definitely, definitely be the hardest working MP this constituency has ever had.”
Ms Dodds earlier said Labour, which came second at the 2019 general election with 14,000 votes, would need an “absolutely enormous change” to gain the traditionally safe Tory seat.
“However, Labour did win in Selby and Ainsty,” she told Times Radio.
The party’s Mid Bedfordshire campaign lead Peter Kyle also said the by-election represents a “bigger challenge” for Labour than north Yorkshire’s Selby and Ainsty, where it flipped a 20,000 blue majority, but added “it’s one that we are actually prepared for”.
Meanwhile, Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey said he is “increasingly confident we have a really good chance” of nabbing Ms Dorries’ seat.
He is hoping his party can pull off another shock victory after recently flipping a 19,000 Conservative majority in Somerton and Frome.
Sir Ed, who has visited Mid Bedfordshire three times since Ms Dorries’ promise to quit, told BBC Breakfast: “It’s clear that the people of Mid Bedfordshire feel the Conservative Party is out of trust and they see the Liberal Democrats as the main challenger.”
He noted that the Lib Dems have achieved massive swings to take similar rural so-called Blue Wall seats, where Conservative support has traditionally been strong.
Although the party came third in Mid Bedfordshire in 2019, with 8,000 votes, Sir Ed pointed to recent by-elections where it won seats from third place, such as in Tiverton and Honiton.
“It’s really clear – the evidence is overwhelming – that in seats like Mid Bedfordshire it’s the Liberal Democrats who are the only ones who can beat the Conservatives,” Sir Ed said.
Liberal Democrats are the bookies favourite and the people of Mid Bedfordshire deserve so much better than these Conservative clowns.
Emma Holland-Lindsay is a local champion who will fight for every vote and stand up for Bedfordshire every single day.
— Ed Davey (@EdwardJDavey) August 26, 2023
Ms Dorries is expected to leave her parliamentary seat on Tuesday after notifying the Chancellor of her intention to do so on Saturday.
She had come under mounting pressure – including from fellow Tory MPs – to act on her June 9 pledge to step down with “immediate effect” in protest at not getting a peerage in Boris Johnson’s resignation honours list.
Jeremy Hunt is expected to facilitate her exit from the House of Commons under the archaic process of appointing her to be Steward and Bailiff of the Three Hundreds of Chiltern on the first working day after the bank holiday.
This will enable a motion called a “writ” to be moved when Parliament returns on September 4, giving between 21 and 27 working days for a vote to be held in Mid Bedfordshire.
The challenge for the Conservatives to defend the seat could be compounded by voters’ frustration over Ms Dorries’ absenteeism as she had not spoken in the Commons since June 2022 and last voted in April.
The party’s chances may also not be helped by the divisive circumstances of her exit, which she delayed saying she was investigating why she was refused a seat in the Lords.
The former nurse also used her resignation letter to launch a scathing attack on the Prime Minister, accusing Mr Sunak of betraying Conservative principles and putting her personal safety at risk by whipping up “a public frenzy” against her.
In an interview on Sunday with TalkTV, where she hosts a weekly chat show, Ms Dorries repeated some of her charges, saying the Prime Minister’s criticism of her had “endangered” her safety leading the police to visit her home.
“It came to a point where I just thought this has got to end now.”
She also said: “To be criticised for not being in Parliament when it has been an absolute zombie Parliament for the last 12 months I just felt was a bit rich.”
A Government minister said people were not “interested” in hearing the staunch Johnson loyalist’s “personal attack” on Mr Sunak, saying “we need to move forward” having “raked over the coals of the Boris Johnson premiership a number of times”.
Responding to her criticism of the Prime Minister’s record, veterans minister Johnny Mercer told Times Radio: “It’s far better to be seen to fail while striving greatly.”