Published: 20:34, 29 October 2019
| Updated: 20:59, 29 October 2019
As the parties prepare for a general election on December 12 after the government failed to break the Brexit deadlock, Kent will be a key battleground when voters head for the polls.
Against a backdrop of unprecedented political turmoil and the Brexit crisis, the stakes could not be higher. Political editor Paul Francis assesses the prospects of the parties.
When Theresa May triggered an unexpected election in 2017, the outcome was far from what she had hoped for. Voters rewarded her ill-fated bid to secure a stronger mandate by depriving her of a working majority.
But in Kent, the Conservatives remained the dominant party - with one notable exception - and in many of the 17 seats, MPs saw their vote increase.
The results make it hard to imagine the circumstances in which the party’s grip on the county will be challenged. Its majorities in traditional strongholds such as Sevenoaks, Tonbridge and Malling, and Maidstone and The Weald, are on paper, impregnable.
Only two Kent seats feature in Labour’s top 100 targets and both are low down the list: Dover (93rd) and South Thanet (94).
So, are there any Conservative fault lines? The party lost control of two councils in May but that was partly down to pacts between the Green party and the Liberal Democrats not to contest certain wards.
And it retained Medway council relatively comfortably in the face of a challenge from Labour that seemed to fizzle out.
Brexit remains a touchstone issue and the three-year delay in delivering a deal has prompted the return of Nigel Farage to the political fray. Some Conservatives privately are worried about his impact, but single issue parties often find it difficult to convert protest votes into something more permanent.
Brexit has led to an awkward impasse in a seat that epitomises true blue Tory heartland more than any other - Tunbridge Wells. The issue about whether Greg Clark will stand as a candidate in the seat he has held since 2005 appears to have been resolved after he was given back the party whip - which he lost for joining an earlier revolt over a no-deal Brexit.
There is also an uncomfortable backdrop for the party in Dover, where incumbent MP Charlie Elphicke is facing three charges of sexual assault against two women, which he has firmly denied.
As to Labour’s prospects, it starts from a more modest position than it might have wanted and expected.
National polls show it is some distance from the heady days under Tony Blair when it won half the constituencies in the county at three successive elections from 1997.
It had a poor showing in the EU election, coming fifth in Ashford, Maidstone, Sevenoaks, Swale, and Tonbridge and Malling.
And it made modest progress in the preceding council elections, where it won control of just one authority, Gravesham, and narrowly fell short of winning Thanet.
The party’s failure to have an easily understood policy on Brexit is one factor and its contortions over what it would support and when have confused voters.
It will look to the trio of Medway seats and Sittingbourne and Sheppey to make inroads but none are official targets and all require Labour to secure a swing of more than 9% to defeat incumbent MPs.
In South Thanet, which is a target, the party has only just adopted its prospective parliamentary candidate after a messy selection process.
Against this background, there is one seat where Labour can point to evidence of an important breakthrough last time.
Canterbury saw Rosie Duffield edge out the long-serving Conservative MP Julian Brazier in one of the great shocks of 2017. But she is defending a slender majority of just 187 and faces a Conservative onslaught in what is shaping up to be a titanic struggle.
As for the Liberal Democrats, the election presents an opportunity to appeal to remain supporters with its pledge to scrap Brexit altogether. It did well in the EU election, despite being overshadowed by the surge in support for the Brexit party.
It took second place in a string of areas, including Tunbridge Wells, Canterbury, Tonbridge and Malling, and Sevenoaks.
Its prospects of converting that support in to winning seats, however, are slim.
In constituencies like Maidstone and Canterbury, where it has previously had hopes of making a parliamentary breakthrough, it has been edged out by Labour.
For the Green party, the aim will be to build on its successes in council elections and position itself as the party that best represents those concerned about climate change and the environment. However, they are a fair way from being in a position to capture a seat.
And that applies equally to the Brexit Party, headed by the politician with the capacity to cause palpitations in all the mainstream parties.
The return of Nigel Farage to the frontline has put particular pressure on the Conservatives in Kent. But the success it had in the EU election was arguably a classic protest vote; and that often dissipates at general elections.
So, the stakes are high for all the parties in what will be an election unlike any other in recent times.
The unpredictable and volatile nature of politics, with Brexit casting a long shadow, could throw up surprises.
And perhaps the surprise in Kent will be that once the votes are counted, the political map will again be dominated by a shade of blue.
More by this authorPaul Francis