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Conservative disquiet over planning reform reflects more than just electoral concern

Tory opponents of the government’s planning reforms are worried that they simply have no place in Boris Johnson’s brave new world.

By Stephen Bush

What connects Theresa Villiers and Chris Grayling? One answer is that they both held cabinet rank under David Cameron. Another is that they were prominent critics of the government’s original plans to reform planning and are seen as potential rebels when the Planning Bill comes to the House of Commons. That speaks to another commonality that stretches across a small but significant chunk of the parliamentary party: their seats were more secure in 2010, when David Cameron was only able to form a government thanks to the support of the Liberal Democrats, than they were in 2019, when Boris Johnson enjoyed a landslide victory over the Labour Party.

The other thing that connects the two is that they had worse results in their own backyards in this year’s local elections, with a loss in support since 2016 and 2017 despite the Conservatives doing better overall this time round. Another potential Tory rebel, Angela Richardson, has written a piece for ConservativeHome on what the party can learn from its disappointments down south.

The question several MPs in this group are now asking is this: the vaccine roll-out is the biggest public policy success of any postwar government. If I am going backwards in my seat even now, on the best day my party will likely ever have in office, what happens if the next election is on a merely good day? Hell, what happens if it’s on an average day?

That forms the essence of their objection to the Conservatives’ plans to reform planning, which they fear will have two consequences: a direct loss of Tory voters to the Liberal Democrats and/or the Greens campaigning against new housing on social or environmental grounds, and an influx of Labour voters from nearby cities into their seats to occupy new housing.

They have drawn some comfort from what they see as Keir Starmer’s mystifying response to the results. (“Why didn’t he just get on a train to my seat and start talking up the green shoots of recovery, the need to learn from success?” one Conservative MP in this group asked me.) But several in this group believe that either Starmer will raise his game or be removed as leader, so they are not particularly comforted.

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Others point out that even if you assume the Conservatives will gain seats at the next general election – say that Labour recovers enough ground in 2023 or 2024 that it saves most, but not all, of the seats that would have gone Tory had the Brexit Party not stood in 2019 – then any modest recovery for Labour and the Liberal Democrats, while not enough to save sitting Labour MPs such as Stephanie Peacock and Dan Jarvis, is enough to sink Conservative MPs with small majorities in the south of England.

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And that perhaps speaks to the biggest source of anxiety of all: that the Tory party as a whole no longer needs these constituencies, that even if it is re-elected in a landslide it can do without these places, and that MPs who were once at the centre of the Conservative Party’s affairs are, for the foreseeable future, cast in a role they have until now been able to view with a mixture of pity and contempt: MPs in highly vulnerable marginal seats, who have no time to concern themselves with big political affairs, because they are locked in a constant battle simply to survive.

[see also: Who will win the Chesham and Amersham by-election?]