The Liberal Democrats have strengthened their grip on the Chiltern Hills after a vote in the future Harpenden and Berkhamsted constituency.

Caroline Smith-Wright secured 899 votes – 62.7 per cent – in the February 15 by-election for a Dacorum Borough Council Tring West and Rural seat.

This is up from the 49.9 per cent vote share which Councillor Brian Patterson, who continues to represent the ward, enjoyed in May 2023.

Tring is represented in Parliament by Conservative MP Gagan Mohindra.

But Victoria Collins hopes she will become the first Liberal politician to represent the town since John Freeman Dunn’s one-year stint in 1923.

Herts Advertiser: The Liberal Democrat candidate for Harpenden & Berkhamsted, Victoria Collins.The Liberal Democrat candidate for Harpenden & Berkhamsted, Victoria Collins. (Image: Will Durrant / LDRS)

Ms Collins has described the seat as “winnable”.

She told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “We are a group of locals who care about the state of the country and care about our local area.

“There are a lot of people here who work in different areas, but they come back home and appreciate where they live.

“What they see is our public services falling apart, as well as the economy and moral standards.

“They look at the Conservatives and think, ‘That’s not a party we want to support any more’.”

Ms Collins added: “On the doorstep, I spoke to a woman in Tring who said she had asthma and had to wait 12 weeks for a doctor’s appointment.

“There are massive issues with the roads. It comes up time after time that they are falling apart.

Herts Advertiser: Lib Dem leader Ed Davey and Harpenden & Berkhamsted candidate Victoria Collins.Lib Dem leader Ed Davey and Harpenden & Berkhamsted candidate Victoria Collins. (Image: Will Durrant / LDRS)

“I fully think it comes back to us having a local electorate here who are switched on to the national picture but still care very much about where they live.”

Following parliamentary by-elections in Kingswood near Bristol and Wellingborough near Northampton, both taken from the Conservatives by new Labour MPs, Reform UK has hit headlines.

The Brexit Party’s successor finished third in both parliamentary polls, ahead of the Liberal Democrats – with 10 per cent of the vote in Kingswood and 13 per cent in Wellingborough.

Leader Richard Tice told BBC Radio 5Live has the party is “coming of age”.

Reform UK did not field a candidate in the Tring West and Rural by-election but the party has selected Saba Poursaeedi to stand in the Harpenden and Berkhamsted seat at a future general election.

When asked whether Reform UK could challenge the Liberal Democrats for votes in western Hertfordshire, Ms Collins said: “There are a lot of pro-European businesses in Harpenden and Berkhamsted.

“I heard from one business owner who was impacted severely by Brexit.

“He’s got an online business with around 80 per cent of his customers in Europe, so the way Brexit has been dealt with has been really hard for him and his family.

“Look, let the democratic process run, but I think here it’s about Liberal Democrats standing up for what’s right.”

Hammer and… tractor?

Conservative MPs and campaigners secured an 80-seat majority in the House of Commons at the last general election in 2019.

But during this parliament, the Lib Dems appear to have set their sights on a Chiltern Hills heartland.

The party’s leader Sir Ed Davey arrived in Chesham, Buckinghamshire after a 2021 by-election armed with a hammer to smash a blue wall of shoeboxes.

Sarah Green had won the Chesham and Amersham seat after the death of her predecessor, Conservative MP Dame Cheryl Gillan.

Two years later and Sir Ed was back – five miles down the road in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire.

Spray-painted blue straw bales came tumbling down before he greeted campaigners from the side of a tractor.

After launching his local election campaign in the Dacorum town, his party secured a 10-seat majority on the borough council in May 2023.

The authority had only ever seen Conservative and Labour leaders throughout its then-49-year history.

In the nearby St Albans district, including Harpenden, the party took 50 out of 56 seats on the lower-tier council in 2022.

The Conservatives held onto just four seats.

Labour candidates lost the three seats they had won over previous years.

At the end of 2023, Liberal Democrat councillor Allison Wren secured 58 per cent of the vote in a Hertfordshire County Council by-election for the Harpenden Rural seat – a gain from the Conservatives.

But it isn’t plain sailing for the party which lost almost all of their seats – 49 – at the 2015 general election, leaving them with just eight seats that year, recovering to 15 at the start of 2024.

The Lib Dem candidate lost her deposit in Wellingborough, around 35 miles from Tring, after finishing fourth in the by-election race.

In the city-meets-hills Kingswood constituency, at the Cotswold foothills, the party also lost its deposit after a fifth-place position, behind the Green, Reform, Conservative and Labour parties.

Rishi Sunak: ‘Mid-term elections are always difficult’

Like the Lib Dems, the Conservatives have a candidate ready to stand in the new Harpenden and Berkhamsted seat, when a general election is called.

When he launched his campaign, Nigel Gardner said: “This is an area that I really love and care about.

“I’m not the only one to be returning here after time away – many of the friends I used to spend time with in Berkhamsted are moving back.”

He added: “Looking after the green belt should be a cross-party goal.

“We have an obligation to future generations to protect what makes the area beautiful.”

Reacting to two defeats in Kingswood and Wellingborough, Rishi Sunak told the press: “Mid-term by-elections are always difficult for incumbent governments and the circumstances of these by-elections were, of course, particularly challenging.”

The Conservative prime minister added there is “work to do to show people” he is delivering on people’s priorities.

Herts Advertiser: The Conservative candidate for Harpenden & Berkhamsted, Nigel Gardner.The Conservative candidate for Harpenden & Berkhamsted, Nigel Gardner. (Image: Will Durrant / LDRS)

“That’s what I’m absolutely determined to do,” he said.

In Tring West and Rural, turnout was at 27.2 per cent.

Against Caroline Smith-Wright’s win with 899 votes, the Conservatives’ Mike Hicks took 303 votes.

The Green Party’s Joe Stopps took 122 votes, and James Lawler of the Labour Party 109.

Ms Smith-Wright will be one of two ward councillors in Tring West and Rural, with Cllr Brian Patterson.

Her predecessor, Lib Dem councillor John Mottershead, resigned due to ill health.