Both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats have insisted there is no formal deal to join forces, but Sir Ed Davey’s Party have been fairly quiet in the lead up to the Old Bexley and Sidcup by-election – providing Sir Keir with an open road to challenge a Tory seat. On the other side, Labour has has opted not to go over the top with its campaigning for the Shropshire North by-election on December 16, despite finishing as the runner up there in 2019 – giving the Lib Dems a clear run against the Conservatives.
A Labour strategist told the Financial Times: “We can see the Lib Dems have focused on Shropshire North and they’ll probably end up a good second there.
“They came second in the recent local elections — from their perspective it makes sense for them to concentrate their resources there.”
In the heavily pro-Brexit seat in the Bexley constituency, which has been vacant since the death of former minister James Brokenshire, the Tories hold a massive majority of 18,952 from the general election two years ago.
The Shropshire seat — left vacant after the resignation of former minister Owen Paterson – holds an even bigger majority of 22,949 from the last general election.
Two years ago, the Lib Dems finished third, but gained seats in the local elections in May.
The by-elections come at a crucial time for under-pressure Mr Johnson and a strong warning parties are providing each other with a clear run against the Tories in seats relative to their biggest strengths.
Sir Keir has rejected calls for a “progressive alliance” of parties to Labour, the Lib Dems and Greens.
Lib Dem leader Sir Ed had also dismissed the idea of a formal party pact, but admitted: “The Liberal Democrats are a crucial part of the fight to get Boris Johnson out of power.
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“We will campaign in areas where we think we can win and I fully expect Labour to do the same.
“It’s no secret that we don’t put all our efforts into every by-election, but in Chesham and Amersham this summer and in North Shropshire now we can powerfully make our case.”
Senior Conservatives are worried the by-election in Bexley could be closer than previously expected, predominantly because of plunging turnout among voters and associated apathy.
Strategists from Mr Johnson’s ruling party are keeping a close eye on the impact of what one described as “below the radar” collaboration between Labour and the Lib Dems in the crucial by-elections.
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One told the Financial Times: “If the left actually got their act together, it could make things much more difficult in 2024.
“We were lucky that the centre-right vote was entirely united at the last election and they weren’t. It could be a game changer.”
Tim Bale, politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, added: “If there is going to be a move towards some kind of progressive alliance or electoral pact, it will have to be tacit.
“There is no prospect of Labour or the Lib Dems — either at the top or on the ground — doing anything formal.”
In June, the Lib Dems scored an unexpected victory in the Chesham and Amersham, with Sarah Green securing a 25 percent swing and winning with a majority of more than 8,000.
Labour’s campaign went below the radar with support diving to just 11 percent, mainly because of what many observers said was tactical voting for the Lib Dems, with the Labour candidate receiving just 622 votes.
But just a few weeks later, the roles reversed during the Batley-and-Spen by-election – won by Labour – where the Lib Dem campaign was extremely low-key.
However, Lib Dem insiders insisted it put up a ready fight in a pair of wards where it was deemed that “soft Tory” voters would not be prepared to jump to Labour.
A party strategist told the Financial Times: “We’d never go as far as to say there was an agreement, but we did fight to win over ‘soft-Con switchers’ in places where they were deemed unlikely to make a full conversion to Labour.”