In an entirely different era (that is, before 2019), a small part of my job was to tour broadcasting studios and explain why a disappointing election result for the Conservative Party was of very little wider significance and only to be expected in the circumstances.
In this context and given that old habits die hard, if I try hard enough I can find some relatively benign explanations from a Conservative perspective for the loss of one of their safest seats, Chesham and Amersham (which had a Tory majority of 16,223), to the Liberal Democrats in the by-election of 17 June. Voters tend to use by-elections as a cost-free opportunity to express mid-term discontent. There were local factors in play (HS2 and planning) that can make a big difference in a by-election but do not usually move votes in the same way as a general election. The late Cheryl Gillan was a popular constituency MP in Chesham and Amersham and the Tories did not benefit from her incumbency vote.
In the context of excellent opinion poll ratings, mostly good results in the local election, victory in the Hartlepool by-election and high expectations in Batley and Spen, any minister touring the broadcasting studios in the wake of this result can make a credible case that the Conservative Party – as a whole – is not in serious trouble.
The point, however, is that the Conservatives are in trouble in some parts of the country for two reasons. The Liberal Democrats successfully exploited the planning issue, just as they did in other parts of the home counties in the local elections. It is an issue that tends to be less important in general elections when turnout is higher (those most worried about new housing tend to be fastidious in voting at every opportunity), but Conservative MPs will be very jittery. Planning reform is not dead but its prospects are bleak. The government needs to make a more positive offer to existing local residents.
The deeper problem is that there are a number of traditionally Conservative-voting constituencies where a high proportion of Conservative supporters are relatively liberal and educated, and feel uncomfortable with the new direction of the party. The Tory vote in these places is very soft.
Could the result in Chesham and Amersham be a harbinger of things to come? I am a believer in the view that there is a political realignment underway in British politics and that while most of the former Red Wall will stay Conservative, some seemingly safe Conservative seats are lost. (The Liberal Democrats are in second place in 79 Tory-held constituencies.)
I have written for the New Statesman recently about the “Blue Wall” seats that an ambitious opposition might seek to win. If one were to compile a list of 30 seats vulnerable to such a surge, Chesham and Amersham (55 per cent Remain vote, a five percentage point fall in the Conservative vote in the 2019 general election, a large number of residents who normally use the constituency’s three Tube stations to commute to London) would be high on it. I represented the neighbouring seat (South West Hertfordshire) for nearly 15 years and live close to the constituency border – this is not “Johnson country”.
A radically transformed Labour Party might be the challenger in those seats but given that such a radical transformation is unlikely, the greatest opportunity is for the Liberal Democrats. Can they take it, beyond the odd by-election win?
The Liberal Democrats now have an important choice to make. To some extent, the triumph in Chesham and Amersham was the sort of thing the Lib Dems used to do on a regular basis before the coalition government in 2010. Have a good local candidate; campaign energetically; ruthlessly exploit local issues even if that means departing from national policy; be the party of protest; and win. They could decide that this is a rather good formula (it is certainly a familiar one to those who were around in the Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy eras) and leave it at that – a moderate, somewhat ill-defined “none of the above” party that has its moments.
But they could go further. Rather than being all things to all people (an attribute that, admittedly, can be rather helpful in by-elections), the Liberal Democrats could turn themselves into the natural party for the home counties’ educated middle classes. Pro-business, economically responsible, socially liberal but not woke (I would suggest that they do not make transgender rights the party’s second most prominent policy, as they did in 2019), and willing to challenge the government on its EU policy – there is an agenda that can appeal to longstanding Conservative voters in much of the Blue Wall.
The combination of the unpopularity brought on by entering into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 and the spectacular failure of their 2019 campaign left the Liberal Democrats traumatised. The former meant that they were terrified of being described as “Yellow Tories”; the latter meant that they didn’t really want to talk about Brexit. In reality, the Lib Dems’ best opportunity to win seats is to gain the support of people who rather liked the coalition government and think our relationship with the EU is inadequate. It is time for the party to put its traumas in the past.
If the Liberal Democrats are willing and able to do that, we may be entering into the second phase of the realignment of British politics. The first phase – the fall of the Red Wall – has left the Conservatives dominant. The second phase – the crumbling of the Blue Wall – would make our politics much more competitive.