Much of the focus when it comes to ‘Super Thursday’ centres on whether or not the Tories can pull off an electoral coup by snatching Hartlepool from Labour. But the Lib Dems' role in the drama has largely gone unnoticed – and a good result for Ed Davey's party could spell the start of trouble for Boris Johnson.
Labour needs to hold onto Hartlepool. It’s really that simple. To lose the seat, particularly to a Conservative party that has been in power for eleven years, would be devastating. Starmer is also under pressure in the local elections. To put this into perspective, Labour lost around 400 seats in the areas being contested on Thursday during the Corbyn era. This means that even just to get back to level pegging with the Ed Miliband period, Labour need to gain hundreds of local seats – and no one is suggesting they are about to do that.
So it seems Labour are destined to underperform by any realistic measure this week. Boris, then, will get the glory and a bad set of local results for Labour will take a huge amount of heat off the Prime Minister. But hold on: things might not be so simple for the Tories.
When the Lib Dems became the only nationwide party to vote against the extension of the government’s emergency Covid powers recently – with Labour voting with the Conservatives on the issue – the Lib Dems were playing smart politics for a change. For once, they were living up to their name as the 'liberal' party. Since then, they have even started to throw some mud at Labour, at least on leaflets and in emails to supporters. This is something that hadn’t happened much since Starmer’s ascension to the Labour leadership. Until now, Davey has largely focused his fire on the Tories.
But while this is a welcome shift in Lib Dem campaigning, will Davey's party actually get any credit from voters? One of the problems for them is that there appears to be a correlation between those who are anti-lockdown and people who were passionately pro-Brexit. In other words, it may be hard for the party to win much support for standing up to an extension of emergency powers of the kind that make lockdown measures possible, given their recent vocal opposition to leaving the EU.
Yet it is possible that with Brexit 'done' and the Lib Dems having stated they will not be campaigning to re-join the EU anytime soon, there may be room for them to gain some of the ‘none of the above’ vote. If so, this would mark a big change in attracting a pool of voters who have largely deserted them in the wake of them joining the coalition government in 2010. Will pro-Brexit voters forgive the Lib Dems their Brexit positioning and reward them for standing up against the government on Covid measures?
It helps them that Nigel Farage is no longer involved in politics and that the Reform party has stalled badly as a result. That leaves space for a ‘reject the big two’ party. In staking a claim to this title, the Lib Dems have several key advantages.
One is that they have a record of actually running councils. This isn’t to be sniffed at. If the Lib Dems win a council, they are competent enough to ensure that the bins are emptied on time. In other words, if you want to stick it to the government with your vote on Thursday, it might be prudent to vote for a party that will actually be able to run things afterwards as opposed to some alt-right keyboard warriors or people who like to dress up as animals. Voting for the Lib Dems will be a vote to spite the government but not to cut your own nose, to stretch the expression.
The other is that the Lib Dems still have data and local campaigning knowledge left over from their former local government heyday. They still know how to win crunch local contests such as those which are up for grabs this week. It goes without saying this will be a big advantage for the Lib Dems.
If the Lib Dems do manage to do well this week, it should theoretically eat more into any Tory wins as opposed to Labour victories. And while even a Lib Dem surge of miraculous proportions shouldn’t immediately worry the Conservatives, they would be foolish to ignore it entirely. The Lib Dems are in second place in 91 Tory seats across the country, so any rebirth of the yellows should be studied by CCHQ, particularly given that a rebuilt local base will be of huge help to the Lib Dems come the next general election.
To summarise, the Tories look from here to be the party most likely to have a good 'super' Thursday, in England at least. Labour has a mountain to climb and the scenario I’ve just laid out of a huge Lib Dem surge still seems unlikely. But even a small boost for the Lib Dems should help ensure that Boris does not get too comfortable. While the Prime Minister might seem unassailable right now, there are always dangers out there in politics, usually where you least suspect them to be hiding. In years to come, Ed Davey's Lib Dems – not Starmer's Labour – could be the ones to worry the Tories.