Clegg: Eastleigh byelection showed Tory anger over cuts to A&E

Tory campaign hits cars outside David Cameron’s constituency as party’s leader tries to make his mark on rival benches

Nick Clegg has claimed that an angry reaction to the cancellation of emergency ambulances in Cameron’s Witney constituency gave his party its shock byelection victory on Friday.

The former deputy prime minister said the turnout of 53% in the byelection was “very much above expectation” and was partly a reaction to the difficulties caused by cuts to A&E and ambulance services.

Clegg had previously claimed that his party had been “battered and pilloried” in Cameron’s constituency after local ambulances were cancelled because of budget cuts.

Speaking on Sky News, Clegg said: “The response we’ve seen of people saying ‘in my street is there an A&E?’ – that is creating a chorus of people coming out against Theresa May and a sense that what has been happening in Cameron’s Witney, why has it happened in our Eastleigh?”

The Liberal Democrats made gains in the referendum referendum and local elections in 2011, though the Conservatives say the last byelection, in March 2012, was also held at a time of “economic uncertainty”.

The council in which Cameron’s constituency lies – Oxfordshire county council – saw its financial position worsen since 2015 due to cuts imposed by the Tories in Tory-run councils, including Oxfordshire county council.

And there are questions over how much the byelection result can be replicated this time, as there are fewer big media events – Cameron was for a while widely expected to miss the election to concentrate on his family following the birth of his youngest son, Ivan.

“There’s been a big change since 2010 … and the big realisation on the Tory side is they lost the constituency, they lost Witney, they lost not just Eastleigh but also Tatton,” Clegg said.

“All these things together, coupled with the anger over the way the Conservatives have behaved in a number of councils since 2010, gives a counterbalance to the narrative of Cameron and the big defence around the ‘Tory party’s success’ in winning seats at this election – not the underperformance of the Liberal Democrats or the big underperformance of Labour.”

Fuelling that narrative is the higher swing to Labour of 9.3% – up from 6.5% in Eastleigh, the Liberal Democrats’ previous byelection win – in a marginal seat that the Conservatives only narrowly won in 2015.

Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader, said the party would return to “making middle-class promises” if his party continued to lose ground, citing the key issue of net migration, and the failure to deliver the aspiration of a graduate tax or university tuition fees replacement.

Farron said: “If we don’t get this sorted, as I say, we will get to a position where people in the very wealthy areas will pay taxes and people in the inner suburbs will pay taxes and there will be very little difference.”

He added: “Quite frankly, as those with higher incomes leave, we will go one step further to say: ‘Look, if you live in the city centre or the countryside, you’ll have to pay more.’”

Farron contrasted that with the Conservative pledge to scrap tuition fees for graduates making £25,000 a year, adding: “It’s like the politicians are trying to fill the gap between what most people want and what they are delivering.”

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the Liberal Democrats did not want a graduate tax, which would be a cross between higher rates of VAT and National Insurance.

Asked if he could accept £20,000 as the threshold for an affordable graduate tax, Farron replied: “All taxes are an emotive issue. I don’t want to suggest that a graduate tax is not a massive change – the size of the change is very, very different from what the current system is – but that is a free market fundamentalism view.”

• This article was amended on 2 July 2017. An earlier version included a wrong figure for the swing in favour of Labour of 9.3% in Cameron’s Witney constituency. The correct figure is 9.4%.

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