2024 general election: Lib Dems target Jeremy Hunt for their own Portillo moment in the Blue Wall

The Liberal Democrats are targeting Tory seats across the ‘Blue Wall’ of southern England (PA)
The Liberal Democrats are targeting Tory seats across the ‘Blue Wall’ of southern England (PA)

Veterans of the 1997 election remember the shock fall of Michael Portillo. This time, several Conservative big-hitters are vulnerable with the Liberal Democrats targeting key bricks of the “Blue Wall” across southern England.

On the Lib Dem hitlist for this year’s “Portillo moment” is Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, who in 2019 won a majority of 8,817 in South West Surrey. That would already be marginal given the state of the polls on Thursday and recent by-election results. But boundary changes mean that his new constituency of Godalming and Ash is very much in opposition sights.

Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey was planting his flag deep in enemy territory on Thursday with a visit to Cheltenham, where Justice Secretary Alex Chalk is defending a tiny majority of 981, as his party targets 80 seats where they were in second place to the Tories in 2019.

The party is even making a play at Surrey Heath, where Michael Gove won a majority of 18,349 last time, and has drawn heart from this month’s local elections when it gained ground in Suella Braverman’s Hampshire backyard.

Sarah Olney, the Lib Dem MP for Richmond Park, told the Standard: “All across London and the South East, the Lib Dems are the clear choice to beat the Conservatives at the General Election.

“This Government has overseen gallons of sewage pumped into our waterways, they have chronically underfunded our NHS and have sent mortgages and rents skyrocketing. Every vote for the Liberal Democrats is a vote against their rule and for a fair deal.”

Labour, not content with seeking to rebuild the “Red Wall” in the north, has its own ambitions in the Home Counties. Sir Keir Starmer and his deputy Angela Rayner started their campaign on Thursday morning at Gillingham Football Club in Kent.

Sir Keir declared to cheering supporters: “Last time under a Labour Government, Gillingham was in the same league as Manchester City. So that’s a good place to start.”

Labour targets include Defence Secretary Grant Shapps in Welwyn Hatfield (2019 majority 10,955) and Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt in Portsmouth North (majority 15,780).

Ms Mordaunt, bearer of the jewelled Sword of Offering at the King’s coronation, is seen as a likely contender for the Conservative leadership should Rishi Sunak fall after a defeat on July 4.

Another is Kemi Badenoch, who is sitting safe with a majority of 27,594 in Saffron Walden (which is becoming North West Essex under the boundary changes).

But elsewhere in Essex, Labour seized Basildon Council from the Tories on May 2, and it celebrated other local wins across London’s commuter belt including the home of the British Army in Aldershot, Hampshire.

However, the Tories intend to fight hard in their heartlands on July 4. A party spokesman said: “Sir Keir Starmer knows that the more people who vote Liberal Democrat, the more seats he can win.

“That would only mean one thing: a Labour majority meaning higher taxes, more crime, and Ulez and road pricing in your local area,” he said.

“Only the Conservatives will do what’s right for this country to deliver a secure future for you and your family.”

Mr Portillo’s old seat of Enfield Southgate is getting further out of reach for the Tories, however. It becomes Southgate and Wood Green under the boundary changes with the addition of Labour-leaning wards.

After this month becoming the largest party on Bristol City Council, the Green Party meanwhile is targeting Bristol Central to add to its current Commons seat of Brighton Pavilion.

Green co-leader Carla Denyer said on BBC Breakfast that voters were “disgusted frankly” after 14 years of Tory rule, “but are feeling utterly uninspired by Keir Starmer’s Labour Party”.

Hear Jitendra Joshi on today’s episode of The Standard podcast.