It is no coincidence that Theresa May chose to hit the campaign trail in Wolverhampton and Dudley last weekend; both are areas where Ukip did especially well in 2015. What is emerging is that the West Midlands – particularly the Labour-held Midlands marginals – will be the key battleground in this coming election. From the creation of the Mercian kingdom by Alfred the Great, to the Battle of Bosworth and Germany’s bombing of Coventry in 1940 – not to mention the 2015 election which led to Brexit – the Midlands has provided the backdrop against which the future of our country has been shaped. The election on 8 June will be no exception.
Several polls now put the Conservatives on target to win between 45 and 50 per cent of the national vote, while Labour looks likely to lose at least two seats in Birmingham and as many as seven in the West Midlands. For Labour, it could be a political bloodbath; for Tory candidates in the Midlands, it’s the best opportunity they’ve had to sweep up seats since Thatcher’s 1987 landslide, when she won 42 per cent of the popular vote.
If the polls are correct, Labour would lose Birmingham Edgbaston, and Birmingham Northfield. But the Tories could also take Newcastle-Under-Lyme, Coventry South and Coventry North West, Dudley North, Wolverhampton South West and Wolverhampton North East.
Other vulnerable Labour seats include Stoke South and South Central, as well as Walsall North, where sitting Labour MP David Winnick is aged a mere 83. That’s if the Tories can defuse an ugly row that has broken out in the local constituency association over which candidate to adopt. According to the Express & Star, Conservative Campaign Headquarters is controlling the shortlist, which has upset some local members. In many ways, the party is right to do this; it needs to be ruthless in selecting the best candidates. And anyway, the Conservatives have never won elections by making sentimental candidate choices. As Alan Clark put it, there is a ‘tacit article of faith among serious Conservative politicians that the interests of the British nation state are best served by contriving the perpetuity of a Tory administration’.
To win decisively in the Midlands, the Tories need to win not just Labour votes, but former Labour-turned-Ukip votes, too. Around West Bromwich, Walsall and Coventry, along with working-class towns such as Bedworth in North Warwickshire, where I stood in 2015, Ukip’s vote was particularly strong.
In West Bromwich East, for example, Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson, who appears to have a safe majority of just under 10,000, is boasting about ‘kicking the Tories out’. But he may well be vulnerable to toxic Remain fallout – West Bromwich is a ‘Leave’ heartland – and the fact that he is close to Jeremy Corbyn. His majority was slashed two years ago after Ukip won more than 8,000 former Labour votes. If these same voters go over to the Brexit-backing Tories – not to mention those Labour-voting Leavers – Watson could find any future leadership hopes quickly dashed as an ex MP.
Having joined the Tories again after the referendum – mission accomplished – I have said I will stand, if selected, as a Conservative candidate on 8 June against any Labour-held Midlands marginal seat. This is because I believe it is critical that Theresa May is returned to Downing Street with a strong mandate to enter negotiations with the EU.
To do this, the Tories will need to field strong, media-savvy candidates who have fought elections and ideally have family and business roots in the area. Time is short; and the party has therefore adopted emergency measures to fast-track candidates. But it is also essential that Tory voters do not become complacent or apathetic because of May’s runaway lead in the polls. There is an important difference between this election and 2015, especially in the Midlands. In 2015, Ukip greatly helped the Tories by sucking up large droves of working-class votes in constituencies such as North Warwickshire, Dudley or Wolverhampton South West. On 8 June, the Ukip vote is likely to all-but evaporate.
With Ukip’s vote withering, will former Labour voters switch to the Tories as the working class supported Thatcher in the 1980s? Maybe not. Or, especially if they voted Remain, will they switch to the Liberal Democrats? Possibly. There is an undercurrent of strong support for the Lib Dems in more affluent Midlands areas, such as Shrewsbury and Ludlow – more than many might think. And anyway, there are many, many Tory and Labour supporters who also voted against Brexit who simply cannot bring themselves to vote for Corbyn – and, for this reason, lodge a protest vote with the Lib Dems instead.