Opinion: Who will the Tories send in to try and take back Mid Bedfordshire?

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Polling Station church red brick building. Image: Peter Fleming/Adobe Stock
Image: Peter Fleming/Adobe Stock

It’s stupid o’clock on a Sunday morning in October 2023, I’m tired and, as my partner and close friends know, I love a lie-in, especially on a Sunday.

But, there’s work to do and the eyes of the world are turned toward Mid Bedfordshire as we get closer to a by-election. Times Radio has asked me to come on and talk about who might win.

The problem is, I don’t know. If this were a standard election then I’d have absolutely put my money on it remaining blue, as it has been, or rather was, since 1931.

But the gloves are off now, Boris Johnson fan-girl Nadine Dorries, who had seemingly not done any constituency work for far too long, had pulled the rug from under her former party’s feet in anger at missing out on a peerage and quit with controversy.

A by-election was triggered and with the Conservatives in disarray, and losing so-called safe seats elsewhere, Mid Beds could well be for the taking, but would it be Labour, Lib Dems or even an independent to be the one to swing voters?

So, I’m stood there in front of my laptop, my screen showing The Times Radio studio and Darryl Morris asks, “So, who do you think will win?”

I panic. I’m reminded of the advice given to me as a child, ‘it’s ok to say you don’t know’ but as a news editor, I feel like this isn’t acceptable.

But, integrity is all about honesty so with a quiet sigh I tell the truth, “I don’t know…”

We go on to discuss why and how this by-election was up in the air, that even unlikely candidates were buoyed with excitement at a genuine chance at winning.

And that in itself was the news, no one knew who was going to win Mid Bedfordshire. The constituency was no longer safe and, as we found out later that month, it wasn’t ever going to be a Tory shoo-in.

Blue wall down

Around the time of the Mid Beds by-election, the Conservatives had suffered a few shock losses as holes began to appear in the ‘blue wall’, so it wasn’t entirely a surprise when Labour’s Alistair Strathern won, but he had damaged their position considerably.

Winning by 1,192 votes Mr Strathern overturned the 25,000 Conservative majority achieved by Nadine Dorries in the previous General Election, with 13,872 votes.

The Conservative candidate and former Bedfordshire Police and Crime Commissioner, Festus Akinbusoye took 12,680 votes with the Lib Dems trailing with 9,420.

And with local council elections on their way a few months later it was expected that in Bedford Borough the ‘safe’ Lib Dem seat would remain too.

Bedford Borough is well known as a bellwether borough. Our voting record tends to match the national trend so when a Conservative mayor was elected, albeit by just 145 votes, there were a few (over) confident voices silenced.

Once again, it was proven that nothing is safe and anything can happen.

With recent losses in local council and elected mayoral seats up and down the country, and opinion polls placing the Conservatives way behind Labour, surely then Labour’s champion Alistair Strathern would retain the seat?

That is of course, if he intends to stick around… and, what’s this? He’s not.

Alistair Strathern Labour's Candidate for Mid Beds MP. Image: The Labour Party
Alistair Strathern. the current MP for Mid Bedfordshire. Image: The Labour Party

Being deployed to stand as the Labour candidate for the newly formed Hitchin constituency, Labour no doubt feel that they can use their proven winner to gain more seats, and they’ve placed what could prove to a strong candidate to build on his Mid Beds success.

Former Luton councillor Maahwish Mirza says she’s “thrilled” to have been chosen.

She’s also already gotten stuck in repeating the Labour party’s plans and how she’ll “give [a] voice to the hard-working people of this [Mid Beds] community and fight to make sure that jobs and opportunities are brought back to Mid Bedfordshire.”

Ms Mirza will have a tough campaign ahead of her. She can’t presume the constituency is safe, she won’t want to lose a seat taken less than a year ago, and she will potentially have to face a Conservative heavyweight.

But who might that be?

With the recent PCC elections, the party has been holding off announcing their candidate and with that, it feels like they’re already behind, we’ve known who the Bedford & Kempston candidate is for ages, for example.

We’re expected to hear who the Conservative candidate will be later tonight (23 May), and it could well be one of these.

Festus Akinbusoye

  • He has name recognition and is popular with the constituency party after getting the nomination just a few months ago.
  • He’s lost two elections from winning positions in the last six months – if there’s one thing the Tories don’t need right now, it’s someone who is a confirmed vote-loser

Blake Stephenson

  • Local, shortlisted last time, name recognition
  • Still a relatively new councillor – is this someone the party want to hand a potentially lifelong parliamentary seat to?

Parvez Akhtar

  • Knows how to fight an election, has contacts across Bedfordshire has stood for Mayor of Bedford and Luton South MP
  • His Mayoral campaign in 2009 was a disaster which ostracised many local members

Mark Lehain

  • Local (to Bedford) and a close ally of several senior Tories including Gove and Keegan
  • A controversial figure nationally for his leading role in the free school movement

Ryan Henson

  • Ran a good 2019 campaign in Bedford & Kempston
  • His strengths lay as a Bedford candidate, and he hasn’t expressed an interest in running again but might make a surprise appearance
(l-r) Mid Bedfordshire Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, Conservative PPC for Bedford and Kempston Ryan Henson and Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
(l-r) Former Mid Bedfordshire Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, former Conservative PPC for Bedford and Kempston Ryan Henson and former Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Andy Street

  • One of the few Tories to emerge from their near-wipeout in May’s elections, a rising figure in the party
  • Has no local links whatsoever, but does have a national appeal

Of course, we still have other candidates from other parties to be announced. There will be a Lib Dem, it’s likely there will be a Reform, and there could well be an Independent.

We have heard there may be a few smaller outsiders running too, no doubt seeing a PR opportunity in Mid Beds even if they have no chance of winning.

But this does still, once again, mean we’re faced with a question. Who is going to win Mid Beds? And, once again, I’m stumped.

With Labour’s candidate changes, the way Bedfordshire voters here have shown they will buck the national trend if they feel it’s necessary, and that the Conservative choice could be ‘make or break’ for them, Mid Beds is, once again, one to watch.