Chesham and Amersham by-election defeat shows PM may be paying price for Red Wall focus

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Election officials count the ballots in the Chesham and Amersham By-Election at Chesham Leisure Centre on June 17, 2021 - Jim Dyson/Getty Images
Election officials count the ballots in the Chesham and Amersham By-Election at Chesham Leisure Centre on June 17, 2021 - Jim Dyson/Getty Images

That sound you hear this morning after the stunning Liberal Democrat victory in Chesham and Amersham is Boris Johnson’s new Conservative coalition bursting at the seams.

The Prime Minister’s much-hailed success in expanding the Tories’ appeal into working class communities in the North East and Midlands was critical to winning his vast majority in 2019.

But the counter-argument was always this: that in taking the Red Wall seats off Labour, the party’s brand was now so stretched that at some point it would be untenable.

In Chesham, the critics have the first real proof of exactly that.

The scale of the defeat should not be underestimated. Back at the December 2019 election, the Tory candidate won the seat with around 55 per cent of the vote, while the Lib Dem got just 26 per cent.

That is a win by 29 percentage points - the equivalent of around 16,000 votes. To call this a safe Tory seat is an understatement. Defeat was as close to unthinkable as you get in politics.

To win the seat, the Lib Dems targeted two policies that have seen murmurings of discontent from the Tory faithful - planning reforms and the railway project High Speed 2 (HS2).

The former has been dubbed the biggest shake-up of the planning system in generations and is an attempt by the Johnson Government to boost house-building by loosening restrictions.

Scores of Conservative MPs, predominantly in Southern, rural constituencies, have voiced their concerns, fearing planning changes will make it easier to build on the Green Belt.

The rebellion has only just got going

The legislation is not yet through the House of Commons and a parliamentary battle is expected later this year.

According to one Tory MP, the Lib Dems had been bombarding Chesham voters with leaflets quoting dire warnings from Theresa May - one of the Conservative MP critics - about what would happen if the planning reforms were adopted.

HS2, designed as the next generation of British railways which better connects the north and south of the country, has been another bugbear of the Conseravtive Party’s rural southern heartland. Mr Johnson himself has been historically lukewarm about the project before getting the top job.

The Lib Dems singled out the policy throughout the by-election campaign in an attempt to peel traditional Conservative off the new Johnson project. It appears to have worked.

Both those policies speak directly to the tensions at the heart of the new Conservatives.

They sit squarely at the centre of the message Mr Johnson sends out to the Red Wall seats - one of "levelling up", investment in infrastructure, ending the housing shortage, narrowing the inequalities gap between the north and south of England.

But they are policies which the bedrock of the Tory Party for generations - voters in southern rural constituencies - have a much more mixed view on. For some, HS2 is a new railway running by their back garden, not a means of rebalancing the nation’s inequalities.

'Blue Wall is beginning to crumble'

Some Tories who represent these seats, in an attempt to drive their demands up the priority list, have dubbed themselves the "Blue Wall" - that is, like Labour’s Red Wall, the core constituencies that get the Conservatives into power.

It is a concept that Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, was all too happy to allude to in his victory comments after the by-election. "Across the South, the Tory Blue Wall is beginning to crumble," he declared.

That may be a little premature, but he will know deeper tensions in the party exist over Mr Johnson’s electoral strategy, not least on the big questions of economic policy.

To hang onto the Red Wall seats at the next election, Downing Street knows it must show material improvement in the lives of its constituents. That needs money.

The Government is already spending and borrowing at levels not seen for generations to prop up the economy after the hammering it has taken by the Covid pandemic. Red Wall Tory MPs are calling for much of that to continue.

They want investment into schools, hospitals, roads and high streets to continue. Levelling-up, they argue, comes with a high price tag that has to be paid.

But traditional, fiscally conservative Tories are nervous about the abandonment of their long-held prudence when it comes to public spending and are eager to bring it back down to more historically normal levels.

It is one of the great challenges of the next three years for Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, and Mr Johnson. How to bring down public spending - as the Chancellor has said he will - while still convincing Red Wall voters the party has delivered for them by the 2024 election.

With the by-election victory still being digested on Friday morning, some caution should be taken in over-reading the results. Every constituency race has its idiosyncrasies and Chesham and Amersham is no different.

The by-election was triggered because of the death of its incumbent MP Cheryl Gillan who had held the seat for 1992. A well-known and well-liked local candidate may have boosted Tory support in the area in recent elections, masking problems that have emerged on Thursday’s vote.

Are the fortunes of the Lib Dems on the turn?

But there are two further wider political questions that this jaw-dropping victory prompts.

One, about the Lib Dems. They have spent half a decade in the electoral wilderness, losing their position as the country’s third biggest political party in the Commons (to the SNP) after being seen to have sold out their values in the 2010-2015 Coalition years.

Are their fortunes on the turn? Campaigning for a second EU referendum failed to trigger a resurgence. Perhaps ruthlessly going after the Tory shires after Mr Johnson pivoted to the North could do just that.

And secondly, Brexit. Delivering on Britain’s EU exit was the crowbar that allowed Mr Johnson to crank open the door of the Red Wall. Traditional Labour voters agreed to back him in December 2019 to, in his words, "get Brexit done".

What if, with Brexit now secured and the EU referendum fading from memory - it was five years ago this month - the cracks in the Johnson voter coalition begin to become apparent? Or even widen?

The next election in 2024 will not be defined by Brexit. The Prime Minister will have to convince both Red Wall and Blue Wall seats that he still speaks to both their priorities.

Victory had been a foregone conclusion to many politicos in Westminster. This morning, that looks a little less certain.

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