Tories avoid Brexit backlash and benefit from the collapse of UKIP

Gary Jefferies

UKIP’S only bastion in West Kent – Tunbridge Wells – was swept away last week (May 4) in county council elections that saw the Conservatives cement their grip on the borough.

Incumbent Tory candidates saw their majorities significantly boosted by the collapse of the Eurosceptic Party. Overall the party increased its majority across Kent by 20, to 67 seats.

Chris Hoare of UKIP, who lost his division of Tunbridge Wells East to Conservative Paul Barrington-King, came last with just 429 votes. Admitting it was a ‘bad day’ for his party he said their misfortune was due to ‘Theresa May wearing UKIP clothes.’

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” he added. Perhaps reinforcing his point, Cllr Barrington-King informed Mr Hoare that his own brother Peter had recently joined the Conservative group in Southborough.

Cllr Barrington-King credited his campaign team for his emphatic victory, which he said was a tribute to his friend the late Kevin Lynes, who had represented the ward before Mr Hoare won it for UKIP in 2013. It was the party’s one and only seat in West Kent.

The boost resulting from UKIP’s collapse, and a turnout which only marginally increased to an average of 35 per cent, meant neither the Liberal Democrats nor Labour were able to mount an effective challenge.

Fears among some Conservative candidates of a backlash against Greg Clark’s backing of Brexit failed to materialise.

In Tunbridge Wells North, where incumbent Conservative Peter Oakford looked to be most vulnerable to Liberal Democrats tapping into anger over Greg Clark’s Brexit backing, he received an additional 700 votes.

The Liberal Democrat candidate Marguerita Morton ended up coming third with 1172 votes, just behind Labour’s Martin Betts, whose campaign capitalised on people’s objections to the Southborough Hub project.

“I think we did well in our core area of Southborough and Highbrooms which was consolation, but the UKIP vote has flooded to the Conservatives,” said Mr Betts, who won 1248 votes.

Cllr Oakford said he was ‘delighted’ by the result, claiming it was an endorsement of the hub project.

In the Cranbrook division, Independent Nancy Warne came second with 988 votes behind incumbent Conservative Sean Holden, on 2932 votes.

Cllr Holden said he was ‘looking forward’ to representing the seven rural villages he will represent, but was particularly pleased that his friend, Catherine Mayer – founder of the Women’s Equality Party – had chosen to field one of their only four nationwide candidates in the borough.

“I thoroughly like their principles and believe they bring some important issues to light,” he said, adding he would like to invite them to give a lecture at the town hall, where he also sits.

Not disheartened by coming in fourth in the South division with 474 votes, Women’s Equality Party candidate Celine Thomas said: “We are very pleased with the result. It is the first time we have fielded a candidate at an election and we were the biggest of the small parties, beating Green and UKIP.”

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