It is, on paper, one of the safest Conservative constituencies in Kent. But is the well-heeled spa town of Tunbridge Wells poised for an imminent electoral battle?
Political editor Paul Francis reports on an unlikely political frontline.
If you were compiling a list of the most disastrous performances in a general election, the Lib Dems’ implosion in 2019 would be hard to beat.
Under the leadership of Jo Swinson, the party lost 10 seats – including her own – and went into freefall, seemingly destined for political obscurity.
But while they were written off in the aftermath of that gruesome election, the party re-established itself and slowly began to defy its critics and those who derided it as a spent force.
It scored some spectacular Parliamentary by-election victories, with one win being attributed directly to fears that the Conservative government was to allow a developers’ free-for all on building over the countryside.
It played on those fears and took the formerly safe Tory seat of Chesham and Amersham, overturning a majority of 16,223.
And it has risen, Lazarus-like, in some parts of the county, reflected in some impressive gains at local election level.
The Conservatives, with 33 elected members, comfortably retained control of the authority, but the warning signs were there.
It was more difficult to read the Tunbridge Wells council election result as only a third of the seats were being contested but the party ended up with five wards of the 16 being contested.
So, what gives the Liberal Democrats grounds for optimism that they could finally break through and return an MP in the constituency?
One factor may be that the Conservative grip on power has been loosened in a significant way at a local government level. Its unbroken period in office over two decades ended when it lost its majority in 2022.
In a slide in the polls, it lost eight of the 10 seats up for grabs in the 16 being contested.
The Conservatives had been on the back foot as a result of a long-running saga over a multi-million pound redevelopment of the civic centre. It had spawned the creation of a new party, the Tunbridge Wells Alliance, which campaigned against the Tories on this one issue.
It now has a key role in the rainbow coalition, dubbed the ‘borough partnership’, led by the Liberal Democrats running the authority.
Against a backdrop of splits, acrimony and open warfare, the Conservatives have also become vulnerable to the charge that 13 years in power has made the party look rather tired.
Mike Martin, the Liberal Democrat prospective parliamentary candidate, weighs his words carefully when asked what gives him belief that they could pull off an upset.
“It’s not clear when there will be an election but it is likely to be 2024 and we are getting ready for that,” he said.
What makes the seat ‘in play’ as it briefly was in 2019?
“The obvious one is recent election results in the borough and constituency, which is gaining momentum.
“I do a lot of canvassing and if I go door knocking in the centre of Tunbridge Wells, I expect to get Liberal Democrats and I do.
“If I go out into the countryside, I would expect to get Conservatives but it is breaking 50-50. If that holds at a general election it will be a disaster for the Conservatives.”
However, the constituency has routinely been one in which the vote for the two other parties has been split, giving the Tory candidate something of a cushion.
But Mr Martin is dismissive of Labour’s chances, adding: “They cannot win; it is just not possible because the pockets of support they have are too small.
“I think we have seen the high watermark for the Labour Party.”
Given that he believes the Labour Party cannot win, will he be advocating tactical voting?
“Absolutely,” he says. “In the same way that I would ask Conservative voters fed up with their party. You don't win elections by tactical voting, you win by convincing previous Conservative voters to vote Lib Dem.
“Tactical voting is something that is nice to have.”
“I think we have seen the high watermark for the Labour Party...”
A former British Army political officer, who served in Helmand province in Afghanistan, his job was to “talk to all sides in the conflict and help find ways of achieving our goals without fighting.”
It’s a skillset that could prove useful on the campaign trail.
In a sign the Lib Dems are preparing for what they believe could be a close contest, they recently opened a new hub and campaign HQ in the town.
Mr Martin says comparisons with 2019 should be treated with caution, as many supporters of the Lib Dems “gritted their teeth” and loaned their support to the Tories to keep out Jeremy Corbyn.
As for Europe, he believes there is little appetite for a re-run of the poll – even given that Tunbridge Wells was the only place in Kent where voters backed remaining in the EU.
“There are a whole bunch of things that need fixing and we cannot afford to take three years out for another argument about it.”
For his part, the current MP Greg Clark believes there is enough time for the party to convince wavering voters who traditionally might have backed the Tories but are now looking further afield.
The dismal council polls were a classic case of a party getting battered mid-term by disenchanted voters delivering a warning shot across the bows. But the recent by-elections which saw shock defeats suggested antipathy and disillusion about politicians was broadly spread.
Mr Clark said: “It is perfectly reasonable to express this disapproval and send a warning to parties that have not been doing well.
“No-one can deny that what has happened in the last few years, with the Truss government and the demise of Boris Johnson, has given people plenty of reasons not to want to support us. It is a different question when it comes to the final poll.”
He offers a surprisingly candid and complimentary assessment of the Labour leader Keir Starmer.
He said: “If I look at Starmer on the downside, lots of people do not have a clear understanding of what he stands for.
“On the other side he is not someone who frightens Tunbridge Wells in the same way that Corbyn did – it is much better for the country not to have someone as dangerous like Corbyn as opposition leader [and] we have someone who is clearly a man of distinction and capability and who was given a Knighthood.
“I am not going to be so partisan as to wish they had someone as hopeless and as disastrous like Corbyn. I am pleased they have a more credible leader, that makes them more competitive.”
Meanwhile, Labour believes it should not be ruled out but is more guarded about the forthcoming election.
Its spokesman Cllr Hugo Pound argues the political landscape is changing in seats that were previously considered as solid, impregnable Tory citadels.
The ousting of the Conservatives from controlling the council is indicative of a change in the political winds.
“There is some optimism in Tunbridge Wells about a general election,” he said.
“Why? One because we did quite well here in both 2015 and 2017 when we came second. People in general elections do vote on national issues and the party is way ahead.
“People will vote partly because they see Labour as a better alternative; partly because people see they are having some influence in the borough and that is a plus.”
Like many, he takes the view that the social demographic makeup of the area is changing, with many more young families moving in who may be more disposed towards Labour.
Census figures show the number of couples with no children fell from 19% to 17.2% in 2021 – a bigger drop than the south east average.
“Even in the rural areas just anecdotally people are saying either ‘I am not going to vote’ or ‘I will consider voting Labour,” said Mr Pound.
His biggest fear is that Labour and the Lib Dems will split the opposition, allowing the Conservatives to hang on to the seat.
“That is undeniably a risk of splitting the vote but both parties will stand because there is a longer term view that if we don’t win this time, we will in four years or the one after that.”
“There is a longer term view that if we don’t win this time, we will in four years or the one after that...”
For the Conservatives, the challenge is to persuade voters to back them for another term as the clock ticks towards a possible election in May.
Former Conservative leader of the council, Tom Dawling, says the issues that have cost the party support locally ones it had little control over.
“We had the pandemic; the inflationary pressures stemmed partly from that and partly the massive spike in energy prices,” he explained.
“These things probably came to a head at a time when demand for energy was at its highest.
“Now the inflationary pressures on the UK economy are abating and since the spring prices have begun to come down.”
But he concedes the party is not dealing with other issues fast enough, notably the NHS. The PM wanted waiting lists to come down. Well that is not going to happen with the strikes.
He is equally cautious over the Prime Minister’s pledge to tackle the small boats issue, insisting that it has ramifications beyond Dover.
He argues the party is in a similar position to 1992, when the expectation was that the Labour Party, led by Neil Kinnock, was on course to win.
“People looked at what was on offer and decided to stick with what they had,” he said.
The voters would have to weigh up whether the government had tackled issues ‘outside its control’ competently enough, he added.
Asked why he was optimistic, he quipped: “Look, I’m a Conservative, I have to be.”
And a realist, too: for the first time in decades, the party no longer runs the authority.
The emergence of an independent political party, created originally to campaign against the £90m redevelopment of the civic centre, the Tunbridge Wells Alliance has stuck around and now sits on the all-party cabinet.
The Conservatives' optimism comes against a political backdrop of fluctuating support for the parties in opinion polls. The Lib Dems would need a swing of about 14% to capture the seat which was the fourth most marginal seat by majority in 2019 in Kent.
Conservative MP Greg Clark won the seat in 2005 and at the last election, secured a hefty majority of 14,645 – partly a consequence of voters backing him when ordinarily they would not as a way to put some pressure on the government to get a Brexit deal.
As to claims about the influence of social changes, census data offers some contradictory statistics. The number of people aged 16 or over in work actually fell by 1.6% between 2011 to 2021.
And while the population increased, it was modest, rising by just 0.2% between the same dates to 115,300.
Property prices in Tunbridge Wells, however, went up and up again, with an eye-watering overall average price of £559,397.
That is 6% up on the previous year and 10% up on the 2020 peak of £510,300.
Compare that with the socially-disadvantaged Thanet, where the average property price was £347,911.
Whether there is a spirit of revolt brewing in a totemic Conservative stronghold is hard to tell. And the one factor most difficult to capture is the feeling that, after 13 years, voters may think it is time to give another party a go.
Still, there is a whiff in the air that this bastion of shire Conservatism could see an intriguing battle whenever an election is called.