Are Cumbrian voters moving towards the Conservatives?
NEVER take anything for granted in politics - a lesson the Conservative Party appears to have learnt the hard way.
Just a few months ago the Tories were flying high in the opinion polls and Prime Minister Theresa May saw an opportunity to call a General Election.
It came as a shock, even to her own party, but they quickly came on board. They said she rightly wanted a mandate from the British people to deliver Brexit, and out rolled the now infamous “strong and stable” mantra.
But what should have been a landslide victory on paper was anything but come election night. Although they still have the most MPs, her majority collapsed and nationally, the party has been left licking its wounds.
Yet in Cumbria, despite some worried faces at the counts, the Conservatives averted disaster. The county’s three Tory MPs - Carlisle’s John Stevenson, Penrith’s Rory Stewart and Copeland’s Trudy Harrison - retained their seats, while candidates came close in both Westmorland and Barrow.
Their biggest disappointment was in Workington, where the Tories had openly hoped for a closer battle with Labour’s Sue Hayman.
Add to that the party’s recent success in the local elections, gaining many traditionally Labour-held seats and coming out of it with the most councillors on Cumbria County Council, and local members are talking it up.
Having retained his seat, if with a slightly smaller majority, Carlisle MP Mr Stevenson is buoyant about his party’s performance in Cumbria.
Having had time to reflect on why they didn’t see the same drop in popularity, he concluded: “Cumbria is a Brexit area and that undoubtedly had an effect. I also think there’s a move towards the Conservatives generally in Cumbria. Things are changing. Carlisle particularly is less unionised and more individualistic.
“We kept our focus locally. I’ve been MP for seven years and I stood on my record - on what I’ve contributed to the area and the work I’ve done. Overall I think the demographics are moving our way in the county.”
James Airey, who stood against Tim Farron in Westmorland & Lonsdale, significantly slashing his majority, believes his strength was an upbeat message - something he believes the national party can learn from.
“Certainly in Cumbria people want local candidates, but the thing I’ve learnt is that positive campaigning works. That’s what people want to see,” he said.
Both men are highly-critical of the national campaign. Mr Airey described it as “a disaster”, while Mr Stevenson added: “It was a negative rather than positive campaign and too Presidential. We didn’t play to our strengths and didn’t challenge the Labour manifesto. We recognise these failings and that these were our fault.”
So where does the party go from here. Is another election this year still a possibility and is the party’s deal with the DUP potentially damaging?
Locally, the Conservative Party are not expecting another election any time soon. It appears most would prefer to focus on Brexit while the party regroups. Mrs May also seems to be back in favour, despite initial calls on her to quit and rumbling of Boris Johnson and others preparing to mount leadership bids.
Mr Airey said that’s the last thing the party needs, believing the Prime Minister’s popularity will rise again if she does a good job with Brexit. He added: “She still has my full backing and needs to stay exactly where she is.”
As for the DUP deal, Mr Airey said it was needed to create a stable Government and enable them to get business through the Commons.
Mr Stevenson added: “I wouldn’t say it’s what I would have wished for, but we need a stable Government. For all those people who believe in proportional representation, this is what happens.”
The Conservatives have been accused of hypocrisy after blasting a potential “coalition of chaos” if Labour had struck a similar deal with the SNP. But Mr Stevenson defended his party. “I wouldn’t say it’s hypocritical, but it’s a reflection of reality - parties will do deals if you don’t have a majority government.”
Ironically, in Cumbria, it is a coalition that has kept the Tories out of power, despite gaining most seats in the local elections. With no party securing a majority, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have joined with three independents.
Mr Airey, as leader of the Conservative group on the county council, has blasted that deal as a disgrace, saying people in the county voted for change.
Stephen Haraldsen is among the new wave of Tories, ousting former cabinet Labour member Beth Furneaux from her seat in Carlisle’s Yewdale ward.
He said it was disappointing that his party failed to take control of the council but believes that despite talks, the Liberal Democrats were never seriously considering a deal with the Conservatives, saying local members are too left wing.
“We made a generous offer as a group but they weren’t interested. It has left Cumbria with an administration relying on two parties and three independents to get anything done. But it won’t stop us being an effective opposition,” he said.
Having previously stood as Parliamentary candidate in Copeland, Mr Haraldsen now lives in Carlisle and has his sights on one day becoming an MP.
Asked why his local campaign was a success, he said it was about getting out on the ground, coupled with the collapse of the Ukip vote.
“Ukip did well in Yewdale four years ago. This time people were telling me they wanted us to get on with Brexit. That’s still an issue,” he said.
Mr Haraldsen also believes that Labour had lost some trust in Yewdale after city councillor Tom Dodd made a sudden move to the USA, due to a family crisis, but didn’t resign until the day before his tenure was due to lapse.
Another success story for the Conservatives was Graham Roberts, who took the Bransty seat previously held by Labour’s Eileen Weir.
He now represents the ward on the county, borough and town councils. Traditionally a marginal seat, he believes people voted Conservative because he has already proven himself to voters, while the party is also growing in popularity in Copeland.
“It was sheer hard work. I’m well known and I do a lot for my ward. I care about the area. I now have a triple mandate so I can get things done,” he said.
Mr Roberts described it as “a fantastic six months for the Conservatives in Copeland”, winning two Parliamentary elections, gaining five county seats and holding three.
“We have done outstandingly well here. I think people trust us. That’s why they voted for us. Nuclear is also a huge issue in Copeland and we are the only party that are really pro-nuclear. We always have been and always will be,” he added.
Nationally the party saw a shift, performing better in some traditional northern Labour areas, like Copeland, yet losing “safe” Tory seats in the south.
Mr Airey believes it was all about timing - predicting his party would have won at least five of the six Cumbrian seats if the General Election had been held on the same day as the local - before the late Labour surge. “It just shows how much can change in a few weeks in politics,” he said.
Yet Mr Stevenson still believes the Jeremy Corbyn bubble will burst, saying Momentum activists are still in conflict with the party’s “moderate” wing.
“Labour have clearly had a post-election boost, but I’m not convinced that can last. Labour are still split and that will emerge,” he said.
Tomorrow: The changing face of Labour