UK finance minister Hunt in knife-edge election battle as 'true blue' Conservatives lose faith

FILE PHOTO: Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Hunt leaves 11 Downing Street to present budget to parliament, in London

By Paul Sandle

GODALMING, England (Reuters) - Britain's finance minister Jeremy Hunt is fighting for his political life in affluent Godalming, south-east England, where a growing number of voters say they no longer recognise the values of his Conservative Party as their own.

If Hunt is defeated on Thursday in the general election - and some polls indicate he will be - his fate will symbolize not just a change in government, but a collapse in Conservative support in the "home counties" around London that had been solid for more than a century.

The 57-year-old, appointed in 2022 to stabilise the economy when former premier Liz Truss sparked a bond market rout, has focused as much on the local in his campaign, such as his support for a new cancer centre, as the national.

That is unsurprising given the antipathy towards the Conservatives across the country after 14 years in power. Pollster Ipsos says 78% of voters say it is time for a change.

"Unfortunately all the good he has done at a local level has really been destroyed by his support for a toxic government," Godalming resident Julian Humphrys, 66, said of Hunt. "And it's what happens at a national level that matters at the moment."

The new Godalming and Ash constituency in the county of Surrey, created by boundary changes, is archetypal "Stockbroker Belt", the prosperous towns and villages that lie within commuting distance of London.

In Godalming - where the high street was still adorned with flags commemorating D-Day - voters wanting competent government, lower taxes and good schools have historically voted Conservative, or Tory as the party is known.

But those ties have frayed, damaged by the turmoil that stemmed from Brexit - Surrey voted to remain in the European Union - the chaos of the Truss and Boris Johnson premierships, and stagnating incomes, leaving many once loyal voters exhausted with the party.


Labour will easily win nationally, polls indicate, but in places like Surrey, the challenge comes from the centrist Liberal Democrat party.

Modelling by pollster YouGov has the Lib Dems ahead in 67 seats, with 57 likely to switch from the Conservatives, including 24 in south-east England.

Hunt, a senior minister for 11 of the last 14 years, including six as health secretary, told a public meeting in Godalming that the government had "not got everything right" but it could be trusted to make the difficult decisions when needed.

"The Conservatives get the economy back on its feet, and that's what I tried to do as chancellor," said the Conservative centrist who challenged Johnson for the leadership of the party.

A successful businessman before he was elected in 2005, Hunt has never seen his share of the vote in his constituency dip below 50%.

At Thursday's election, YouGov predicts his share will fall to 29%, compared with 46% support for the Liberal Democrats.

A source in Hunt's campaign said it was incredibly close.

"We're getting a lot of recognition on the doorstep for the job Jeremy has done as the local MP, but the question will be how much that can offset a difficult national picture."

Adrian Gosling, a 60-year-old teacher in Cranleigh, said the bigger picture was foremost in his mind, particularly Conservative policies like sending illegal immigrants to Rwanda.

"The Tory party is no longer the Tory party of 10, 15, or 20 years ago," he said. "People are looking at the Lib Dems, maybe some of the other centrist candidates as well, to get us back to who we are as a country."

Lib Dem candidate Paul Follows, a local council leader, said voters in Surrey were "centrist, moderate, and progressive", and they wanted properly run government.

"Their values haven't changed but they've seen the party that they've voted for the last two, three decades plus in some cases, they've seen that party move very quickly to the right," he said.

Labour and Green supporters were telling him they would lend him their votes to help oust the Conservatives but there was no room for complacency. "This one's going to be a battle right until the end," he said, in between knocking on doors.


Linda Davis, a 74-year-old retiree, said her grandson had been advising her on tactical voting - where she would vote for the party most likely to beat the Conservatives - even if she prefers an alternative smaller party herself.

"We talk about it with each other," she said on the doorstep. "It's different this year because I don't want to waste my vote, and I see if I vote certain parties that vote is just going to be thrown away. So I will chose to vote Liberal."

The Liberal Democrats - who want to spend more on health and ultimately rejoin the EU single market - have mounted an energetic campaign in Godalming in an effort to oust Hunt.

Other voters said they had drifted away from the Conservatives but had not embraced any alternative.

"I've voted Conservative most of my life, but this time I'm considering not," said Claire Lillywhite, from Witley, adding that the party had seemed to have "given up". But she was not persuaded by the Lib Dems.

Chris Hardy, a security trainer at Heathrow airport, is also struggling to decide. "I've always been Conservative, and I'd like to say vote for someone else, but who else is there?" he said, as he supped a pint at the Greyhound pub in Ash.

He said when he went down to the polling booth, his pencil "might hover" over an alternative, but I "think it would just go back" to the Conservatives, saying he could see a "pattern forming which is sort of going in the right direction".

(Reporting by Paul Sandle; Editing by Kate Holton and Toby Chopra)