Posted: 02.12.19 at 13:56 by Daniel Clark - Local Democracy Reporter
For more than 150 years, on election night, Exmouth and the wider East Devon area has barely registered when the results come in.
It has only ever elected a Conservative MP, often with more than half of the vote and majority in the thousands.
But things might be about to change and the race for the seat has suddenly become a lot more interesting.
In the last two elections, Independent candidate Claire Wright was the runner up behind Sir Hugo Swire. In 2015, she received 13,140 votes, 24 per cent of those cast, and increased that to 21,270 votes in 2017, 35 per cent vote.
Her 2017 tally meant that across England, she was the sixth largest political party in the country, and since then, East Devon’s independent revolution has continued. May’s local elections saw the Conservatives, who had reigned for the entire 45 year history of the district council, lose votes and their majority, and the council is now run as a minority administration by Independents.
And in the MRP YouGov poll that dropped on Wednesday night, East Devon was flagged up as the one seat in the country, other than Chorley represented by the Speaker, who would elect an Independent.
Their poll had Claire Wright on 41 per cent of the vote, and ranging between 31 and 51 per cent, just six points behind Simon Jupp, the new man in town for the Conservatives who hope to hold onto the seat.
Wright, 44, has even been endorsed by actor Hugh Grant as the candidate to vote for in East Devon, urging Liberal Democrat, Green and Labour voters to switch to supporting her.
So can she pull off the upset on election night and end the 150 years of Conservative rule in East Devon?
Mr Jupp, 34, thinks differently. The former broadcaster was born in Plymouth and helped launched Radio Plymouth. He presented on Radio Exe before pursuing his journalistic career within the BBC becoming one of the BBC’s youngest managers, leading the team at BBC Radio Solent in Dorset.
And when speaking to him when he was out on the doorsteps in the rain in Talaton, he said that the response he has been getting on the doorsteps has been even better than he was expecting and that people in an area of the country that voted to leave the EU just want to get Brexit delivered.
He said: “I am genuinely surprised about just how positive people are being about the campaign. I was expecting it to be a bit more difficult and to face a lot of opposition but people just saying to me that they want to get on with it.
“I know it is what you would expect me to say, but people are telling me that they want to get Brexit done. I voted to remain, but I back Boris’s Brexit deal, it’s a fantastic deal for this country to move forward.
“We have spent the last couple of years in the doldrums wondering if Brexit is going to happen. With the deal he secured that other people said he could not and he is down there today, in the South West, in East Devon talking about the people’s priorities because once we have got Brexit done we can make sure that we are funding the NHS to making sure it is working for everyone.
“We can make sure we have transport infrastructure to get people to places they need to be and we can build homes and communities that work for our part of the world.
“The previous parliament was just not working for the people. It meant that there was a lack of progress and an inability to get key issues dealt with, including Brexit. Brexit is coming up as a key issue on the doorstep and the majority of people just want to get it dealt with and so we can move onto the other issues like the NHS and education.”
Earlier this week, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, visited East Devon to discuss community hospital services, and he confirmed the Government has no plans to close Ottery St Mary Community Hospital and is committed to improving the services it offers.
Fears had been raised over the future of the hospital, but Mr Jupp said that the hospital is safe and not under threat, and that the Conservatives would continue to invest in the NHS.
He added: “Our community hospitals are safe. Never let anyone campaigning in East Devon tell you our community hospitals in anyway are under threat. They are not. And I will stand up for our community services, our healthcare services, with every breath of every day.”
Among his other priorities for the region would be to see fast broadband for every house and business across the entire constituency, as well as greater investment in road and rail infrastructure, as well as to help local people get on the housing ladder supporting farmers and businesses to thrive.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson paid a visitor to the region to throw his support behind Mr Jupp’s campaign. He visited Darts Farm in Clyst St George, and of the PM’s visit, he said: “It’s fantastic and I think it shows the government is backing the South West. It’s a brilliant testament of how much investment and how much improvement we can do here in Devon.
“We are going to back our farmers as well and that is really important the Prime Minister is here talking about the importance of British farming and backing British farming. The produce that is produced here in Devon we are the nation’s larder.
“It’s absolutely crucial it continues and it will under a Conservative government if I am elected next month as the MP for East Devon. I will absolutely make sure our farms are protected. One of the things that I am going to be doing by the way is launching a monthly and a quarterly farming forum.
“I yesterday spoke to members of the NFU and as part of that I promised to run do a quarterly farmers forum where basically if there is an issue in the farming community the MP needs to know about it and I will make sure I am the voice of British farming for East Devon. That is something that I have committed to and will be doing.”
He was speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service prior to Wednesday’s poll being published, but said that he wasn’t taking anything for granted in terms of retaining the seat and that he would continue to walk the streets and get his message across to the voters.
“This may traditionally be a safe seat but it is not a safe seat this time around and we will have to fight to win it,” he said.
“The Conservatives struggled earlier this year, but it is safe to say that the Tory party is in a very different position than it was the district council and EU elections. We are in a much better state and position now and people are being impressed by what we are doing.
“I am focused on delivering and improving things for the area and I hope that I can become the MP and I want to be a positive campaigner for the future. I don’t want to get involved in the mudslinging that goes on and I am annoyed by it and it doesn’t reflect well on anyone.
“We are all people and we have all chosen to get into politics because we want to do something good and that should be our focus, not getting involved in slanging matches
“There are lots of people on Twitter and there seem to be quite a few keyboard warriors out there who have a lot to say, but people are very polite on the doorstep. People will say what they do on Twitter and hide behind fake avatars and anonymous names, but they wouldn’t say it to me in person. If they met me then they would know that I am not the person that that they think I am
“As an MP, we have to be a champion for the area and for the community and to deliver what we can. I want it to be a fair fight for this election and no one knows exactly what will happen, but I am focused on delivering the best that I can for the people. East Devon is a great place but it could be better and I will fight for it.”
Mentioning proposals that would see Budleigh Salterton and Topsham fire stations close, he added: “I want to make sure that the coverage for is not diminished. I am not convinced that the fire service proposals are the way forward. It seems ludicrous to cut the overnight cover in Exmouth and in Sidmouth as well. If I am elected, as soon as possible, I will try and speak to the fire service and to look at the rationale of their proposals, what it encompasses and what changes can be made.”
He added: “I want to be a positive MP for East Devon and deliver for the area and I do think Tory campaign is cutting through, as it is being repeated to me on the doorsteps and people want to deliver the result of the referendum.”
Unlike his predecessor, Mr Jupp said that if elected, he would have an office in East Devon.
He added: “One of the things I am very keen on if job creation so would be a hypocritical if I didn’t open an office where people can come in and speak to me and raise their problems.
“I would say we have got a huge champion in 10 Downing Street next month if we elect Boris Johnson as our Prime Minister because he backs Devon, he backs Devon’s farmers and he is backing me as the candidate for East Devon.”
His main rival in East Devon will be Claire Wright, who has a history of winning elections.
Ms Wright was first elected to Ottery Town Council in 2009, East Devon District Council in 2011 when she made headlines ousting its long-standing Tory leader, and Devon County Council in 2013. She retained her seat in 2017, securing 75 per cent of the vote in the Otter Valley ward, the highest of any of the 60 elected councillors.
She is a true Independent, having never been part of any political party, her campaign team are all volunteers, and that she says she will be the ‘voice of East Devon in Westminster, not the voice of Westminster in East Devon’.
Ms Wright said that she would always be free to form her own views and would do my best to represent East Devon and that her manifesto is based on the issues the people of East Devon have told her matter the most.
“The past few years have demonstrated that the party system is broken,” she said. “It is time for change. As an Independent, I would have exactly the same rights as other MPs and would work cross-party to achieve my manifesto pledges.
“I am different. I have no party whip to tell me how to vote. I am free to speak and free to act. And free to fight for the issues that the people of East Devon care about the most.
“This election is very unpredictable and presents a rare opportunity for residents to elect an MP who truly cares and puts them first.”
Talking about her work on Devon County Council, she said: “One big success has been Devon County Council’s wildflower verge policy, which was launched in May 2019, following my pilot of three verges in my own ward in 2013. With a continuing catastrophic decline in insects, it is more vital than ever that the use of pesticides is drastically limited and we all encourage pollinator friendly plants in our gardens.
“While my two enduring passions are nature and the NHS, I am also a very vocal critic of the government’s austerity agenda, which has crippled local councils and is negatively affecting local people’s lives. In Devon County Council alone, over £100m has been cut by central government.
“My view is that it is irresponsible and unnecessary to play with people’s lives in this way. The people who are most affected are always those who find it hardest to stand up for themselves, such as the elderly, the disabled, children and young people.”
She added: “Years of cuts have been very damaging to our health services. East Devon has a high percentage of people who rely on the NHS and we need to ensure that services are run efficiently but also adequately funded. This means campaigning for improved health and social services as well as opposing cuts to existing services.
“Austerity has hit our schools hard. Devon is almost at the bottom of the funding table nationally, this government has starved schools of resources; this has led to fewer teachers, fewer subjects at A Level and bigger class sizes.
“In 2019, Exmouth Community College was struggling so badly it was forced to ask parents to contribute to the school budget. Ministers should be ashamed that they risk jeopardising the education of our children.
“East Devon is seeing a very large amount of development to the detriment to our environment. We live in a beautiful area and we must protect it. We need more homes, especially for younger and less well-off local people – truly affordable homes – but the scale of development that we are now experiencing is unprecedented and is destroying our countryside, as well as compromising infrastructure, such as our schools, roads and health services.
On Brexit, she added: “Boris Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement will leave us poorer, with weaker environmental, animal welfare, consumer and employment protections. Rather than “getting Brexit done”, it will lead to years of trade negotiations, break up the UK and endanger our NHS.
“The government should offer the people a democratic say on the agreement by way of a confirmatory vote. I would campaign to remain.”
Speaking after a hustings event on Thursday night, she added: Political parties should be judged on their records – ten years of grinding austerity in this case. East Devon voters should not be fooled by late apologies and hollow promises when election time comes around.
“When faced by the public, the local candidate attempts to position himself as a campaigner against the same cuts over which his party has presided – it just won’t wash. The party pays lip service to the NHS. Actions always speak louder than words.
“All the results and polling point to this seat being a straight fight between myself and the Conservatives.
“It is a simple choice: do people want to see schools and the NHS run down even further by the party of Government or to elect an MP who has a proven track record of fighting for healthcare and opposing cuts.
“If they want things to change then they need to vote for me.”
The seat has been held by Sir Hugo Swire since 1997. After he announced that he was stepping down earlier this year, he made bullish claims that not only would the Conservatives once again win the seat, but that they would win more than half of the votes.
But former Independent MP Martin Bell thinks that Ms Wright can emulate his own historic win in 1997 in Tatton.
And while the current Prime Minister may be supporting Mr Jupp’s campaign, she can count on the support of the PM in Love Actually.
Hugh Grant has urged East Devon voters to back her. He said: “Dear Lib Dem, Green and Labour voters of East Devon. Do this for your country. We beg you.”
On December 12 voters will go to the polls. Only time will tell as to whether it will be ‘Independent’s Day’ for East Devon.