The Liberal Democrats are rushing through plans to confirm a candidate for Michael Gove’s Surrey seat amid speculation that the former levelling up secretary is considering quitting parliament, sparking a byelection.
Selection for the seat, held by Gove since 2005, closes on Thursday evening, and Lib Dem officials are planning for a possibly imminent campaign the party would fight on issues including the state of local hospitals and plans to drill for gas locally.
A Conservative source said, however, it was not true Gove planned to quit as an MP. Speculation that he might has intensified since Gove publicly backed Rishi Sunak to replace Boris Johnson as prime minister, and said he did not expect to be in government again.
Before becoming an MP, Gove was a prominent journalist for the Times, and there have been reports he is considering a return to the profession.
Surrey Heath has been held by the Tories since the constituency was created in 2001, and Gove had a majority of more 18,000 at the 2019 general election, albeit reduced from almost 25,000 in 2017.
A Lib Dem source said the party had heard from several local sources that Gove could be about to depart, and that it would hope to emulate a trio of recent byelection successes over the Conservatives, in two of which it overturned bigger majorities.
“We are selecting a candidate and we are on high alert, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the byelection will happen.” the source said. “We are also preparing in other seats, for example in Mid Bedfordshire, if Nadine Dorries is given a peerage.”
The Conservative source said: “Sadly this is yet another example of Lib Dem dirty tricks. They are more interested in playing politics than delivering for voters. Michael remains absolutely committed to his Surrey Heath constituents and has no plans to stand down.”
Lib Dem hopes in the seat would be boosted by the party’s recent good performances in so-called blue wall commuter belt constituencies, notably the first of the recent byelection wins, in which the party overturned a Conservative majority of more than 16,000 to take Chesham and Amersham, just north-west of London, in June 2021.
Since then the party took two previously safe Tory seats: North Shropshire in December 2021, overturning a near-23,000 majority; and Tiverton and Honiton in Devon this June, where the Conservative margin had been more than 24,000.
The party can also point to good local election results in May in nearby Woking – there were no polls for councils inside the constituency – in which it took control from the Tories.
“We never take anything for granted,” a Lib Dem source said. “It would be a very hard fight and always we come in as the underdog. We don’t underestimate how hard we have to graft at every by-election”.
A Lib Dem campaign would focus in part on cost of living issues, but also local factors such as the local hospital, Frimley Park, one of 34 in England with a concrete roof at risk of collapse, and the government’s decision to allow drilling for gas in the Surrey Hills.
Gove has held a string of cabinet posts, including education, the environment, and communities and levelling up. Johnson sacked him from the last job in July after Gove told the prime minister he should leave No 10.
Earlier this month, Gove belatedly said he was supporting Sunak as the next Tory leader and PM, warning that the economic plans of Sunak’s rival, Liz Truss, amounted to a “holiday from reality”.
With Truss seen as almost certain to win, that makes Gove’s chances of returning to the frontbenches very slim. Announcing his decision to back Sunak, Gove wrote in the Times: “I do not expect to be in government again.”