Labour is standing a third fewer candidates in the Liberal Democrat target region of the South West than in the last local elections, prompting allegations of an electoral pact.
According to leaked Tory analysis the Labour Party is standing candidates in just 61 per cent of council seats in the South West being voted on at Thursday’s local elections.
That is a dramatic drop from the 97 per cent of candidates they stood in the same region in 2018, the last time there were elections for this selection of council seats.
The change prompted accusations from Oliver Dowden, the Tory chairman, that Labour had secretly agreed to clear the way for the Lib Dems in areas they were unlikely to win.
The analysis also shows that in the North East and North West, parts of England where Labour has deep historical roots, the Lib Dems are standing fewer candidates than in 2018.
Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, and Sir Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, both publicly rubbished the suggestion there was any electoral pact between the two parties.
Sir Keir said “there is no pact, everybody knows there is no pact”. Sir Ed said “no pact now and there’s not going to be a pact in the future”.
Labour sources accused the Tories of a political stunt designed to distract from campaigning for the local elections, about which Conservative headquarters is braced for losses.
The percentage of council seats put up by political parties can vary between electoral cycles, in part reflecting the strength of local party associations.
But the stark drop in candidates standing for Labour in the South West has led to suspicions from Tory sources, given the Lib Dems’ traditional strength in the area.
The Lib Dems success in the 2010 elections, which allowed them to enter a coalition with the Tories, was in part built on a string of victories in the South West.
Lib Dem officials see the region as a key aspect of their comeback plan for the next election, which includes targeting so-called ‘Blue Wall’ seats in solid Tory rural constituencies.
There is no public formal election pact between Labour and the Lib Dems, but Tory Party figures suspect a degree of private coordination between electoral strategists in the two parties.
In the recent by-election in North Shropshire, triggered by the resignation of Tory MP Owen Paterson, both parties stood candidates.
However Tory Party officials believe Labour held back, putting in limited resources in terms of party money and shadow cabinet members’ time, given the Lib Dems were better placed to win.
In the end it was the Lib Dems who pulled off a victory, overturning a vast Tory majority and triggering questions about Boris Johnson’s leadership of the party.
Tory officials fear a similar tactic could be adopted in coming by-election in Tiverton and Honiton, the safe Tory seat held by Neil Parish, the MP who has resigned after watching pornography in the Commons.
Rosie Duffield, the Labour MP for Canterbury, recently questioned how central the South West was in Sir Keir’s plans to win back power during an interview on The Political Party with comedian Matt Forde.
Ms Duffield said “there are bits of the South and South West that don’t feel like we are part of the Labour kind of programme”, which she said was focussed on regaining traditional Labour “Red Wall” seats.
Addressing the claims of an electoral pact, Sir Keir said on Sky News: “I wouldn’t take anything Oliver Dowden says seriously.
“The fact that he is spending his Sunday… attacking Labour… why doesn’t he say something about the cost-of-living crisis for heaven’s sake?”
Sir Ed said: “Liberal Democrats are actually fighting Labour in many areas – in Hull, in Sunderland, in Sheffield and Haringey, in Southwark and many other places where there’s a real fight.”
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( Information from telegraph.co.uk was used in this report. To Read More, click here )