The Liberal Democrats are to launch a digital advertising blitz in “blue wall” seats held by leading cabinet ministers to highlight the new Conservative party deputy chair Lee Anderson’s enthusiastic backing for capital punishment.
The party believes that recent remarks by Anderson, who was promoted to the post last week by Rishi Sunak, will prove “toxic” among Conservative voters in dozens of south-eastern constituencies, including those held by the chancellor of the exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, and deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab.
The digital posters will also feature Anderson’s statements about wanting to send people who arrive in England in small boats back to Calais on a Royal Navy frigate the same day, and his claims that nurses who visit food banks must have their own financial problems.
The Lib Dems believe the interventions from Anderson, a former coal miner, could also boost their vote in May’s local elections, as well as the next general election.
Their deputy leader, Daisy Cooper, said: “The Conservative party has completely abandoned mainstream voters. People are desperate for help with the cost of living and our struggling NHS, not politicians who stoke controversy for the sake of it.”
Sunak responded to the controversy over Anderson’s latest remarks, made in an interview with the Spectator before his appointment, by insisting he did not support the death penalty himself and that it was not government policy.
But Tory MPs believe Sunak appointed the MP for Ashfield & Eastwood in Nottinghamshire deliberately to appeal to rightwing Conservatives, including many in ”red wall” seats in the north of England and the Midlands that the Tories won from Labour at the 2019 general election.
Reactions among Tory MPs have been mixed, with some expressing dismay, and others seeing tactical advantages for a party seeking to appeal to a wide coalition of voters. One Tory moderate who has held senior positions in the party said he saw a merit in the appointment, although he disagreed with Anderson on most things. “In a way I am glad that Lee Anderson is there to say things that I know plenty of my constituents want to hear but which I could not bring myself ever to say.”
When asked by the Spectator if he supported the death penalty, Anderson responded: “Yes. Nobody has ever committed a crime after being executed. 100% success rate.”
A recent YouGov survey found that 30% of people believe the death penalty should be reintroduced in all cases of murder, with the figure rising to 52% in cases of multiple murder.
Anderson maintained that many people outside Westminster thought he spoke good sense. “If I say something that is supposedly outrageous in that place [the Commons], I get back to Ashfield on a Thursday, people will come out the shops and say, ‘You say what I’m thinking’.”
The Lib Dems said they target their digital advertising at specific post codes to ensure they are “hyper-localised” and so have the maximum chance of hitting their target audiences.
Both Hunt’s seat (South West Surrey), where the Tory majority in 2019 was 8,817 over the second placed Lib Dems, and Raab’s (Esher and Walton), where the majority was 2,743, are regarded as winnable seats by the Lib Dems at the next general election.