Boris Johnson’s blue wall under threat from political fracturing
Liberal Democrats' shock by-election win shows how vulnerable the Conservatives are.
LONDON — The leafy home counties constituency of Chesham and Amersham was lost by the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats on Thursday night on an astonishing swing of 25 percent, setting quite a few teacups trembling in their saucers on Tory breakfast tables.
Sarah Green won the seat, which has been Conservative since its creation in 1974, by more than 8,000 votes, in a contest sparked by the death of veteran MP and former Welsh secretary Cheryl Gillan.
Chris Curtis, a pollster for Opinium and native of nearby Milton Keynes, described the result as “bonkers — something you never thought you’d see if you grew up round here”.
As the dust begins to settle, talk has inevitably started — mainly by the Lib Dems — of a “blue wall”: the notion that a whole band of Conservative seats are vulnerable to a yellow incursion, just as the red wall of Labour strongholds in the North and Midlands fell to the Tories in 2019.
UK NATIONAL PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS
For more polling data from across Europe visit Poll of Polls.
As with most sweeping theories in politics, there’s an element of truth but it’s not the whole picture.
As Joe Harris, Lib Dem leader of Cotswold District Council, put it: “The feeling is that if immigration is the issue on which people feel left behind in the red wall and similar seats, then planning is the issue on which people feel ignored in the affluent south in traditionally Tory areas.”
Robin Stephens is a Lib Dem running for a council seat in Esher, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s suburban London constituency, which is firmly in the Lib Dems’ sights. He said: “I am running on local issues, particularly about planning. But I’m hearing time and time again that people who usually vote Tory think that the Conservatives don’t care about their concerns.”
In this version of events, the Conservatives are exposed both on local questions — particularly their plans to boost housebuilding — and on a national level, with their core voters feeling sidelined by the focus on former Labour voters in red wall seats.
One experienced Tory MP backed that up: “It proves that politics can’t stretch its appeal forever. Do well in London, you lose the north, and vice versa. You may not be able to keep both.”
“Tories are making progress in the red wall, with Eton-educated classicist man-of-the people Boris Johnson, whilst those supposed men of the people Sir Ed Davey and Sir Keir Starmer are building support in affluent home counties and amongst metropolitan elites. It’s really odd.”
Another long-serving Conservative MP predicted it would prompt a rethink of planning reforms, which he said were “still being fine-tuned and this result looks likely to encourage more work on that.”
Johnson told journalists on Friday the Lib Dems had pushed a “wilful misunderstanding” of the planning reforms in their campaign and promised green belt sites would not be built on.
The prime minister’s spokesman was forced to deny that Johnson is “anti-south” following the result. He insisted that the prime minister’s flagship policy of “leveling up,” or reducing inequality of life chances, “applies absolutely everywhere in the country.”
The most immediate impact of the shock result may be a shot in the arm for the older, true-blue wing of the government party, which has felt sidelined since the last election and can now apply more pressure on the government.
There are still a number of ways in which Conservatives can convincingly reassure themselves this was an isolated result. The Lib Dem party is built on their local campaigning prowess, tapping into what’s important to that particular spot (even if it means opposing a policy — in this case, high speed rail — which the national party backs).
Numerous previous mid-term contests suggest that voters feel more empowered to vote against type in by-elections, firing a shot across the boughs at the government without risking total upheaval. These factors have enabled Lib Dems to overperform in by-elections through the years, and Chesham will be chalked up as another victory in that tradition.
The last three by-elections won by Lib Dems all reverted into Conservative hands at the following general election (although one, Richmond Park, then changed back again).
It’s tempting to see Chesham as a more “traditional” by-election, in which the government is given a good kicking, than the other recent upset in Hartlepool where the Tories won big in a traditionally Labour seat — the first such victory by a governing party since 1983. But are they in fact part of the same phenomenon, which is the fracturing of common assumptions about the U.K.’s political geography?
“The bigger context of this is that politics is broadly just becoming weirder,” said Curtis, “My belief is that the main reason … is that voters just aren’t as loyal towards a political party as they would have been even a decade ago, but particularly 20 or 30 years ago. They take more of a Compare The Market approach, and that just means more weird things happening.”