It was five days before the Chesham and Amersham by-election when the Liberal Democrats decided to order some big blue bricks and a plastic orange mallet. They had spent the campaign in this Buckinghamshire constituency being surprised, again and again, by the palpable frustration of Conservative voters, who were wavering in their support for a party that many of them had supported for their entire adult lives. When they knocked on the same doors in the last week of the campaign, they found that many of those Conservative voters were switching to the Liberal Democrats. They were tentatively confident they could win in this previously safe Conservative seat.
When the Liberal Democrats did win in Chesham and Amersham five days later, overturning a Conservative majority of more than 16,000, their leader, Ed Davey, duly celebrated by knocking down a “blue wall” of bricks with the orange mallet, in a clip that aired across TV news bulletins all day and was widely shared on social media.
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“It was incredibly cringe. We all knew that,” says one senior Liberal Democrat. “We all thought, this is awful, but it’s also brilliant. And it worked, right?” Overnight, the “blue wall” was cemented in the political lexicon to name and amplify an idea that had barely been acknowledged before: that the Conservatives are vulnerable in a lot of their traditional, southern seats, and vulnerable in particular to the Liberal Democrats, who are second to them in 79 of those constituencies.
Chesham and Amersham was a microcosm, Liberal Democrats believe, of the general election to come; the weaknesses of the Conservative campaign there revealed a wider Conservative complacency about its vote in the south. Liberal Democrats on the ground spoke of voters’ surprise at having politicians knock on their door at all, having gone years with no contact from a Conservative party that thought it could rely on their votes. One senior Liberal Democrat said that the Conservatives didn’t have good data on their voters, and on polling day itself “[Conservative campaigners] were knocking up our voters for us,” not having realised their traditional voters had switched. When Theresa May arrived to join the Conservative campaign ahead of polling day, she was reportedly appalled.
The Conservatives are, famously, pursuing a “Red Wall” strategy, having courted and now hoping to retain voters in Labour’s traditional heartlands. This has been in the expectation that their own traditional voters will stick with them – and in 2019, they did. But the current Conservative government has little to offer these traditional Tories and much to repel them – such as planning reforms, which were a major factor in the Chesham and Amersham contest. “They’re leaving their flank open and we’re coming in and having a big good go,” Davey told me during the campaign in Amersham. That’s before you look at the underlying demographic shifts in these seats, the gradual post-Brexit realignment of British politics, and the “Boris Johnson toxicity factor”, which senior Liberal Democrats identify as one of the biggest current Conservative vulnerabilities among its traditional voters – a factor they think was masked at the last election because of the similar unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn.
“There’s no doubt that dislike of Johnson in the seat wasn’t just an overnight thing,” says a senior Liberal Democrat. “We were also getting the sense that they didn’t like him before. But they voted Tory before because of Corbyn.”
“He was toxic. Maybe former Labour people like him. Maybe former Brexit people do. But a lot of traditional Tories don’t like him,” they add. Those traditional voters are less keen on Johnson’s entire approach to politics: the conduct of Brexit, the proroguing of parliament, or what they see as a wider culture of impunity in his top team, exemplified by the Dominic Cummings and Matt Hancock scandals. It is a private worry of plenty of Conservative MPs too.
The question for the Liberal Democrats is, having identified the Conservatives’ weaknesses, whether they are likely to fix them by the time of a general election. “It’s too soon to tell,” one of the party’s MPs says, admitting that the party is dependent on the resources that the Conservatives decide to pile into its southern seats and how much it reorients towards its southern voters. That also depends on the Labour party. A strong pushback from Labour in the “Red Wall” would force the Conservatives to focus their energies there and not on the “Blue Wall”, helping the Liberal Democrats. But despite benefitting from Keir Starmer’s replacement of Corbyn as Labour leader, some Liberal Democrats are still worried that Labour is “not a particularly strong opposition” at the moment. One of the party’s most senior figures is more confident, however: “The Tories are going to have to fight on two fronts. That’s their problem”.
The Liberal Democrats have been bruised by recent elections and find themselves on a low ebb in Westminster, with only 12 MPs. But from that low base they find themselves unexpectedly well-placed to rebuild, and the strategy for doing so is unexpectedly self-evident. While the party has, historically, argued over its strategic position relative to the two main parties (a choice between “equidistance” or explicitly stating a preference for Labour), the current Conservative leader makes the choice simple: Johnson is seen as politically anathema to the Liberal Democrats, and, luckily for them, he is similarly repellent to their target voters. Davey has explicitly ruled out a coalition with Johnson’s Conservatives.
The electoral arithmetic makes it even simpler. Labour and the Liberal Democrats have distinct areas of strength on the current electoral map, and will be facing Conservatives, and rarely each other, at the next general election. It won’t be so simple if there is a new Conservative leader or if the Liberal Democrats find themselves in pole position to target more Labour seats for the election after next. But that is not a Liberal Democrat concern for now, and nor is the worry among some activists that the strategy is too focused on middle-class southerners, with the party’s MPs pointing to northern targets like Cheadle and Hazel Grove, and other areas of interest like Sheffield, Harrogate, York, Hull, as well as noting relative stability for the party in Scotland.
“We have to start somewhere,” is how one Liberal Democrat MP puts it. Another senior Liberal Democrat notes that traditional Tories vote are turned off by Johnson everywhere, not just in the south. There is, however, some private acknowledgement that the party needs to do better at articulating its own message, focusing on the crisis in care and the climate emergency.
But the Liberal Democrats are, overall, buoyed by their recent win in Chesham and Amersham and confident that the only way is up at the next election. Under Davey, the party has reversed the cuts to its campaigning team that took place in 2011, and reallocated resources to its ground game, going “back to its campaigning roots” as one senior Liberal Democrat puts it. It is by rebuilding from the ground up, with a rootedness in community activism and local government, as well as capitalising on current electoral dynamics, that the Liberal Democrats believe they can make a comeback. Chesham and Amersham was just the start, they believe. Davey still has the orange mallet in pride of place in his office.