The Chesham and Amersham byelection result points to a big problem for Boris Johnson: how to keep traditional Tory supporters in the south happy while leading a government that is focused on its new voters in the so-called red wall.
These days, the seats the prime minister most likes to talk about are those in the former Labour heartlands he won in the 2019 election. However, after the Liberal Democrats made history of their own last night by turning the Buckinghamshire seat – that has only ever been Tory – yellow, that is going to have to change. Tory MPs in the south worry that the Lib Dem victory confirms their worst fears: focus on former Labour strongholds risks their own political careers.
This wasn’t how it was meant to go. While Conservative MPs out on the ground campaigning in recent weeks were picking up a fall in support, most thought the party would still hold Chesham and Amersham comfortably. One such MP compared it to the Witney byelection after David Cameron quit the Commons. There was an upturn for the Lib Dems – but the Tories still held it with a majority over 5,000.
Yesterday’s vote was much worse than that. The Liberal Democrats overturned a majority of 16,000 in the one-time Tory safe seat – with 8,000 votes to spare. “Absolutely bonkers,” was one Lib Dem staffer’s reaction to the scale of Sarah Green’s victory.
“It isn’t good,” says a Tory representing a seat in the south-east. Conservative MPs fear the result has parallels with the 1962 Orpington byelection when that seat – blue since its creation – was won by the Liberal party, sparkingits revival.
Tory aides are keen to stress that it’s hard to read too much from a single byelection. However, it will be hard to convince Tory MPs in the south of that. After disappointing local election results in places such as Surrey and Cambridgeshire, this result only adds to fears that the party’s own “blue wall” really could be under threat.
The result points to an immediate practical problem for Johnson – as well as a philosophical one. The Lib Dems ran a campaign heavily focused on opposing the government’s planning reforms, which they said would take power away from local communities. Given that the planned HS2 route runs through the constituency it was a particularly ripe pitch. Theresa May even contributed – with a quote from her featuring on Lib Dem leaflets, in which the former Tory prime minister claimed Johnson’s plans would mean the “wrong homes being built in the wrong places”.
Tory MPs now describe those reforms as dead on arrival. One MP with a seat on the commuter belt says: “There is absolutely no way we will let [Johnson’s planning reform] go through.” This leaves the prime minister with a headache as it is a key plank of his “levelling up” agenda. He takes the view that MPs opposing reform don’t know what’s good for them as, without more housebuilding, the party will not survive in the medium to long term. “We now have an interesting few months working out how to position for the future while the nimbys scream from the rooftops of the houses they own but no one else can,” says one peeved government adviser.
The second consequence, however, is one that threatens the whole government message. While Lib Dem activists on the ground heard plenty of grumbles about planning, they also frequently heard another phrase: “taken for granted”. Given Johnson’s flagship levelling-up policy is aimed primarily at the Midlands and the north, it’s understandable that long-time southern voters might start to feel a bit overlooked.
“We need to stop going on about the north,” says a member of the 2017 intake bluntly. Up until now, the bulk of Tory MPs had been happy enough to go along with the party leadership targeting its messaging at northern voters, but that is starting to change. The Northern Research Group is likely to face short shrift from colleagues in the shires the next time it demands more money.
But that’s not to say the current Tory government has no strategy for keeping its voter coalition together. Part of the reason Johnson is so keen to make climate change and greenery a key plank of the Covid recovery is that he views it as the great unifier – a way to move past the wounds of Brexit and detoxify his image.
Tory MPs in Lib Dem marginals view the net zero carbon target as a vote winner – though MPs in the north worry that, if done too fast, it could cost them votes. The Cop26 climate conference in November is viewed as an important moment for landing this message domestically – though not everyone is convinced it will work. “Some voters just don’t like Boris,” says a senior Tory.
The Lib Dem victory will only incentivise these Tory MPs to push for more they can offer to their own voters. But with the pandemic ongoing and the Treasury pushing a line of fiscal responsibility, there are only so many resources to go around.
The north-south Tory parliamentary coalition has so far held together on the basis that all sides could win from the government’s message. The byelection result adds to the growing concern among Tory MPs in the south that this is no longer the case.
Katy Balls is the Spectator’s deputy political editor
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