Times report: Tories “make inroads” into Lib Dem support in south-west England. (But where’s the evidence?)

by Stephen Tall on February 24, 2010

There’s a curious article in today’s Times by the paper’s chief political correspondent Sam Coates. Here’s how the report starts:

Voters are abandoning the Liberal Democrats in parts of their South West stronghold as dislike of Gordon Brown boosts support for the Conservatives. A tour by The Times of Lib Dem constituencies in the region found genuine signs of support for the Tories, with voters who backed the Lib Dems in 2005 now responding positively to the high-spending Tory campaign.

Conservative strategists believe the party is significantly more popular in swing seats that have been the target of campaign spending by Lord Ashcroft, the party’s deputy chairman. They believe that their advantage in constituencies such as the 11 Lib Dem marginals in the South West, is between three and eight percentage points higher than the national polls that currently point to a hung Parliament.

All pretty worrying stuff if you’re a Lib Dem … but let’s hang on a minute before we accept the party is doomed to face a stuffing at the general election in a few weeks’ time.

Reading the Times article I was unable to find any actual evidence to back up the paper’s line. In fact, if the story didn’t carry the by-line of Sam Coates – a journalist for whom I have a lot of respect – I would have assumed it was penned by Tory campaign HQ.

The only polling referred to, rather vaguely, is internal Tory polling: the rest of the article comprises a handful of random vox pops. Anecdotes can of course be instructive. But it seems some leap to take the views of a handful of locals in a couple of towns, and then extrapolate that across three entire counties.

The only south-west England-specific polling I’ve seen was last summer’s PoliticsHome marginals poll – that suggested a small swing (c.4%) from the Lib Dems to the Tories. Now it’s true a small swing is all it would take for a number of seats to change hands: but it would be risky to underestimate the power of Lib Dem incumbency, as many Labour/Tory challengers have found in the past.

Clearly there’s no room for complacency: the south-west, as last year’s local and European elections showed, is going to be a challenge for the Lib Dems. After all, the Tories have Lord Belize Ashcroft’s tax-free largesse to draw on. It’s quite possible, therefore, we could lose seats there. But I don’t think anyone, either from the Tory or Lib Dem sides, would be able to say for sure at this stage what might happen.

Which makes it all the more puzzling that The Times should splash this story with such certainty. I would have expected better of it, and of Sam Coates.