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Lib Dems mount mini fightback in local elections

May 5, 2018 2:13 PM
By Jessica Elgot in The Guardian
Originally published by South Lincolnshire Liberal Democrats

VInce CableVince Cable's pro-EU party gains three councils from the Tories, but bar for success stays low

Liberal Democrats pulled off a string of surprising victories in Thursday's elections, netting three councils from the Conservatives, as the party's leader, Sir Vince Cable, said experts had "underestimated" his party's resilience.

It won two key councils in south-west London, building on gains in last year's general election in Richmond and Kingston. Both are heavily pro-EU areas and the Lib Dems will have benefited from their ultra-remain stance.

The bar for success was low with the seats last contested in 2014, the year Lib Dem staffers often characterise as their lowest ebb. The party, then in coalition with the Conservatives, lost 310 council seats. A year later, the parliamentary party faced near wipe-out.

Seizing back Kingston, which was lost in 2015, will be a significant morale boost. The Lib Dems took 39 seats, a gain of 21 councillors, pushing the Conservatives back to just six.

Richmond has been a frustrating patch for the Lib Dems in recent years. The party ousted Tory MP Zac Goldsmith at a 2016 byelection, which he called in protest against the government's Heathrow decision. But just seven months later, Sarah Olney lost to Goldsmith by 45 votes.

On Friday, the Lib Dems were back in the ascendency, with the Conservatives reduced to seven councillors from 39.

Cable's party also made granular but significant inroads elsewhere, including some shock gains in Hull, ousting three long-serving candidates in all-Labour wards.

It held Sutton council in the face of a ferocious Conservative campaign, as well as Eastleigh and Cheltenham. In South Cambridgeshire, a heavily remain area, Lib Dems took the council from the Conservatives.

Senior Lib Dem sources had been questioning the effectiveness of Cable in recent months, fearing the veteran politician had failed to make the inroads necessary to kickstart the party after disappointingly limited advances in June.

Cable said the party had shown "we can win anywhere", pointing at wins in Liverpool, Sunderland and Gosport, "in both leave and remain areas."

"These results show a return to three-party politics and a strong future for the Liberal Democrats," he said. "We stand as the only party fighting for an exit from Brexit, and are making gains against both a Conservative party driven by their right wing, and a leftwing Labour party absorbed by Corbyn's dated economic vision."

Ed Davey, the Kingston and Surbiton MP, who won the seat back for the Lib Dems last year after losing in 2015, said it had been a "brilliant night" for his party. "We might end up winning more councils net from the previous position than any other party," he said. "This looks like a real fightback for the Liberal Democrats."