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Gloves are off between Lib Dems and Labour in the battle for Bermondsey and Old Southwark

Out of the blue, a general election is upon us – and all eyes will be firmly fixed on the north of the borough.

You can bet the house on Harriet Harman staying put in Camberwell & Peckham, boasting as she does the largest majority in the capital. And if not the house, at least the garage on her Labour compatriot Helen Hayes retaining her seat in Dulwich & West Norwood in the south of the borough.

But it’s in Bermondsey and Old Southwark where you’d be harder pressed to choose the winner. Incumbent Neil Coyle has only been in the seat since the 2015 election, but has been making plenty of noise – not least in his vigorous criticism of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. He will feel that he’s barely had the chance to step from the shadows of his predecessor, the Lib Dem Simon Hughes, who held the constituency for 32 years. And all of a sudden, like the ghost from Christmas past, Mr. Hughes is knocking at the door again, having immediately declared he would be standing as his party’s candidate on Tuesday.

Mr. Hughes will feel that he was swept from power in a national tide that all but obliterated his party at the polls. Mr. Coyle will argue that voters decided on someone new and fresh, unburdened by the years in coalition with the Tories.

As ever, it’s hard to predict how much people will vote along party lines, on local issues or national ones – most obviously Brexit. On this, Mr. Hughes’ party is unequivocally against it, while Mr. Coyle rebelled against his party in voting against the triggering of Brexit – so no clear blue water here.

Of course there can only be one winner, and it will prove a brutal result for the loser. A recent letter in these pages from Mr. Hughes, criticising his successor, was savagely rebuffed by Mr. Coyle the following week – a sign that there will be no love lost between the two in the election campaign.

Win it, and Mr. Coyle puts the final nail in his predecessor’s political career, and reinforces his own mandate locally, just as the Prime Minister hopes to do on a national scale. And if Labour loses badly, who’s to say that this ambitious young politician might not be in the running for any prospective Labour leadership – and even go head to head with Ms. Harman, who surely regrets not standing for the leadership?

Mr. Hughes, if he wins it, can then justly claim that 2015 was a blip and that he is still the right man to champion the causes of Bermondsey and its surrounds. The speed with which he announced his candidacy leaves you with the impression that he has been waiting impatiently for this opportunity, refusing to accept that his time here is over.

Whether the voters will see it that way will be fascinating to watch.


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