The Liberal Democrats have chosen East Devon District Council leader Paul Arnott to stand as their candidate for the newly formed Exmouth and Exeter East constituency at the next general election.
The new seat will be formed from much of the old East Devon seat, including Exmouth, Topsham, Budleigh Salterton and Cranbrook, but also eastern parts of Exeter like Pinhoe.
East Devon and its former incarnations has been Conservative since before Queen Victoria came to the throne, whilst Exeter has been held by Labour since 1997.
Despite this, Cllr Arnott believes he has a realistic chance of winning and has received the backing of Claire Wright, who gathered more than 40 per cent of the vote in East Devon in the 2019 general election as an independent, leaving the Conservatives with a majority of 6,708.
He also highlighted the success of the Lib Dems in the area in the 2023 local elections.
Cllr Arnott said: “I think it will become apparent that it’s a two-horse race.
“Claire’s 25,000 votes have to go somewhere, and I would be hoping to get a healthy chunk of those.
“In the East Devon part of the constituency, at the district council, there are 12 Lib Dems, there are two Greens and one Labour [councillor].
“I think that shows that the Lib Dems are the people, by the most recent electoral evidence, who are there to beat.”
However, not all of Claire Wright’s votes in 2019 would have come from the new constituency. The politically independent Boundary Commisison has also created a new area called Honiton and Sidmouth. It reviews constituency boundaries periodically to try to roughly balance them in terms of population numbers.
Clrr Arnott continued: “When you come to St Loyes and Pinhoe, clearly they sit within a Labour city council. The Lib Dems are definitely getting stronger within that and campaigning, and that is somewhere where I will obviously pay a lot of early attention and get out there and meet people.”
Mr Arnott was born in London and was adopted at birth. Educated at Exeter University, he later worked as a journalist and in television and has published four books. He became the leader of East Devon District Council in 2020 and has lived in Colyton since 2001. He is married with four children and one grandchild.
Asked why he thinks he would make a good MP for the area, he said: “My entire work as a district councillor has been across the whole district and I would say disproportionately around what would be my constituency.
“As district leader, I can say truly that I work in the constituency. And I think that’s pretty fine bona fides to want to become a member of parliament.
“I know its major settlements really well, and I lived in Exeter for years, and I lived in Topsham.
“I live nine miles outside the constituency, which I think in Devon terms is more or less next-door neighbour. It takes me about 15 minutes to drive into the constituency.
“What I would hope to bring is the knowledge – the deep knowledge and understanding that I’ve managed to gather as district leader at East Devon, which covers absolutely everything from homes to economy and environment.
“I’ve dealt with those in the constituency, and I’ve dealt with them nationally as well. As a candidate, I come ready with that knowledge. I understand it. I know a lot of people in the constituency.
“I’m not the youngest candidate, but sometimes that’s not such a bad thing. I’m not a career politician knifing his way up. I’m just there to try and do stuff for the benefit of the people of Exmouth and Exeter East.”
Cllr Arnott describes himself as “absolutely centrist” and was an independent councillor before the 2023 local elections, in which he retained his seat in Coly Valley after joining the Lib Dems.
He said: “In order to become selected as a Liberal Democrat candidate, you have to make a study of the Liberal Democrat manifesto.
“I think it’s really strong, and it’s what we’ve been doing at the district, in effect.
“The instant focus for me will be around environment. We know there’s the crisis with South West Water, but that’s not just about beaches, that’s about rivers as well.
“We’ve got an absolute crisis around insufficient homes, particularly for younger people, but it does present as an issue for older people as well.
“That’s about getting stuck into the planning system and about trying to get new social housing going. And I know at East Devon, that is a priority for us already.
“It’s about continuing the good work on the economy, because actually it’s thriving, I think largely due to the work of the district council. We have the [Exeter and East Devon] Enterprise Zone and that’s working very well.
“For me, working with my continuing district contacts on homes and homelessness will be really important.
“And then finally, it’s about working to protect the NHS, which does seem to be coming under consistent attack from the government, tragically.”
A general election must be held by the end of January 2025. One other candidate, Conservative David Reed, has been announced for Exmouth and Exeter East so far.