Can Norman Lamb hold on in Leave-voting Norfolk?
Norman Lamb is the last remaining Lib Dem in the East of England – but the former health minister has a fight on his hands to fend off a challenge from Conservative candidate James Wild. David Singleton reports from Norfolk
The prime minister may have been accused of trying to avoid ‘real voters’, but Norman Lamb can’t get enough of them. As the seasoned Liberal Democrat politician campaigns in the market town of Stalham, members of the public are constantly approaching and wishing him well.
“Keep smiling and keep strong,” he says to a supportive pensioner. “And if you ever want me to do anything then contact me.”
Then, “Thank you! Thank you very much, it’s appreciated,” he replies to one man who is supporting him despite not being a fan of the pro-Remain Lib Dems. “Nice to see ya. Keep an MP you think’s doing a half-decent job!”
Yet for all his apparent popularity, the Lib Dem health spokesperson is something of an anomaly in these parts. In the last parliament, he was his party’s only MP in the east of England. He was also one of only two non-Conservative MPs in the wider Norfolk region.
After four general election victories, can the region’s lone Lib Dem fend off the Tories and cling on his largely rural constituency for a fifth time? On the surface the signs are ominous. In 2015, his majority dropped to just over 4,000. In last year’s referendum, North Norfolk voted to leave the European Union by 59%. And while the Greens are getting behind Lamb, Ukip has pulled out of the race and urged supporters to vote Tory to “rid ourselves of our Liberal Democrat MP”.
But Lamb – who defied his party line and abstained on the vote to trigger Article 50 – says Brexit doesn’t come up on the doorstep very much and “the majority of people you talk to don’t mention it at all”. The clumsy Ukip intervention has galvanised non-Tories who “don’t like that sort of attitude and language”, he claims. He is also finding it “very easy to persuade people who in the past voted Labour to support us this time”. And above all, he is optimistic that his personal connections with voters will win the day.
“In a way, this is a contest between the Conservative national message … and a growing sense that a Tory landslide is pretty much an inevitability. So do we really want a one-party state? And do people actually want to lose an MP who has a got a long track record of active campaigning?” he asks.
“Interestingly, as you go round talking to people on the doorsteps and in town centres and outside schools, a lot of people are saying ‘I will vote for you because of what you have done here or what you’ve done for our family’. Yesterday, someone said ‘You saved my daughter’s life’. It was a case of an eating disorder where they weren’t being listened to and I intervened on their behalf and got things moving.
“A lot of people say ‘We’ll vote for you, we want to keep you as our MP’. And this is a side of politics that the commentators often don’t see.”
Snapping at Lamb’s heels in North Norfolk is Tory candidate James Wild, who recently served as special adviser to defence secretary Michael Fallon. Wild is similarly keen to stress his local credentials, pointing out that he grew up in the constituency and his family lives in the area. But he is also selling himself as a Leave voter who can deliver on the Brexit vote for North Norfolk.
“Norman Lamb sat on the fence about triggering Article 50 so I’m the only candidate here who’s standing to back Theresa May as she negotiates the best possible Brexit deal,” he says. “I don’t get this point that you can divorce the Brexit and the local. If you want to have good local infrastructure and you want North Norfolk to do well, you’ve got to have someone who is part of a team negotiating that deal.”
While Lamb says Brexit is not a major talking point on the doorstep, Wild tells a rather different story: “I think people see the strength of leadership that Theresa May offers. A lot of people are impressed by her and they see that getting the best deal on Brexit and beyond is going to shape the future of our country.”
As Lamb and Wild go head-to-head in North Norfolk, another well-known politician is trying equally hard to keep the Conservatives out of nearby Norwich South. Having won the seat with a 7,654-vote majority in 2015, Labour’s Clive Lewis is the only other non-Tory in Norfolk and he is keen to keep it that way. Even if it has meant cancelling his honeymoon.
After Theresa May announced the snap general election, Lewis had to rethink plans to tie the knot with his fiancée Katy Steel. The pair ended up going ahead with the wedding but cancelling their honeymoon in Cornwall (and his stag do in the Cotswolds) and pounding the pavements together instead. He says: “When the election was first called, I joked that we may end up doorknocking in Norwich South for our honeymoon. That turned out to be not far from the truth!”
Mr and Mrs Lewis were recently joined by 30 canvassers from Tottenham who headed east from the capital to help out for a day. “They consider themselves the People’s Republic of Tottenham – and they went down really well on the doorstep. People really warmed to them,” says Lewis. Jeremy Corbyn has also dropped by to support Lewis, with the pair visiting a “care village” to talk to pensioners.
While Lamb has to be cautious about bashing Brexit, Lewis – who quit the shadow cabinet to vote against triggering Article 50 – is less constrained in a more cosmopolitan constituency which includes the University of East Anglia. The people of Norwich South voted against Brexit in last year’s referendum. There was also a substantial Green vote in the last general election.
So rather than highlighting their Brexit credentials, the Conservatives are focusing on leadership as they try to capture what has long been Labour’s safest seat in Norfolk. Theresa May and Amber Rudd have already been in town to push the national message and Tory candidate Lana Hempsall insists that it is resonating with voters. She says: “On the doorsteps I am being told by people who have always voted Labour that they won’t this time. And the reason is leadership. They don’t trust Jeremy Corbyn.”
Elsewhere in the Norfolk region, many Conservative MPs have been sitting on hefty majorities for years. Of the seven Tory MPs in the region in the last parliament, only Chloe Smith in Norwich North had a majority of less than 5,000. At the top of the pile, Richard Bacon enjoyed a whopping majority of 20,493 in South Norfolk.
For these neighbouring Tories, North Norfolk and Norwich South are the key battlegrounds and Conservative HQ has made it clear that there is a job to be done in these rogue non-Tory seats. One Conservative with a hefty majority says: “I think one of the problems that CCHQ has got is that, in the last two or three weeks, the target seats have expanded and they have to be pretty hard-nosed about where they put in extra resources. What they are relying on is the fact that the rest of Norfolk is Conservative and so they are expecting the neighbouring seats to offer mutual aid, which is what we’re doing.”
Does that mean established Tories in the region are not bothered about increasing their own majorities? “You never take anything for granted. You remember how wafer thin our majorities were in 1997. So you’re conscious of that, you’re conscious of the fact that members of your association want you to concentrate on your seat, without a doubt,” he says. “But what I’m going to do is spend quite a bit of time in North Norfolk. Because if I were to get another two or three thousand votes into my seat that’s not going to make much difference. But to do the same in North Norfolk could mean we take the seat.”
If the Conservative cavalry succeed in their mission to capture both North Norfolk and Norwich South, it will be the first time since 1983 that the entire Norfolk region has turned blue. But Lamb and Lewis are standing firm as neighbouring Tories pile into their seats.
Asked whether he is planning to accompany Tim Farron to any target seats as part of the national Lib Dem fightback, Lamb gives especially short shrift to the idea. “I did that last time. I spent a lot of the campaign going around the country, helping colleagues to hang on. It didn’t work spectacularly well as we suffered a bloodbath,” he says. “So this time I’m focusing on winning North Norfolk. I use my time best campaigning to hold the seat here.”