The constituency of Loughborough had, up until 15 July 2014, been just another seat on Labour’s target list.
It had mildly symbolic value, thanks to the 3.5% swing needed for the Tories to lose being the same as the swing that, were it reproduced nationwide, would leave Ed Miliband’s party with roughly the number of seats David Cameron has now.
But that was the extent of Loughborough’s significance. Its sitting MP had a majority that ranked the constituency the 50th most vulnerable Tory seat in the country. Loughborough felt like the sort of place Labour would aspire to regain (having lost it in 2010) but would probably fall short, thanks to a poorly-resourced campaign and lack of sufficient interest.
But then everything changed.
Last Tuesday Loughborough’s MP Nicky Morgan found herself being rocketed up through the ranks to be appointed the government’s education secretary. In a stroke she became the Conservatives’ most high-profile politician in a marginal seat. And in doing so she also became Labour’s number one potential prize scalp.
Loughborough is now one of the general election’s most compelling battlegrounds.
This was the result in 2010:
Nicky Morgan’s majority of 3,744 is too small for her party’s comfort. Yet Tory strategists must be hoping her promotion and the associated publicity will translate into something positive – a shoring up of existing support, perhaps, or a renewed interest by local residents in how their MP is now a big shot at Westminster. Who knows, it might even mean a few new Conservative voters.
Conversely, Morgan’s new position will presumably mean a new approach by Labour to how it fights the seat. The party will undoubtedly try and exploit the fact Morgan has inherited the somewhat toxic title of education secretary from Michael Gove. If she proves to be as controversial as her predecessor, that will also be mined by Labour for all its electoral worth – though I’m not sure how much of an impact Morgan will be able to make in the nine months before the campaign begins.
More resources and money will probably now be allocated to Labour’s candidate Matthew O’Callaghan. Nicky Morgan’s defeat isn’t the kind of unrealistic “decapitation” espoused by the Lib Dems towards Michael Howard in 2005 or the Tories towards Ed Balls in 2010. It is a seat Labour can win (and ought to win, if you believe the current opinion poll trends will persist until next May).
It might all come down to how well Morgan is able to divide her time between her duties as education secretary and the kind of work every MP in a marginal constituency has to do more than ever in the months before an election: knocking on doors, attending community events, getting their face and name in the local media, and showing they still care about the people who sent them to Westminster last time round.
Before 15 July, I had thought that Nicky Morgan would be safe in 2015. Now I’m not so sure. Her promotion has introduced a new, unpredictable factor into what had the makings of a rather predictable contest.
But here’s one thing we know will happen. Loughborough is set for a deluge of visits by senior Tory and Labour faces. The stakes have been raised. I wonder how many residents’ hackles will be as well.