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  1. The Weekend Report
6 July 2024

How Jeremy Hunt survived the breaking of the Blue Wall

The former chancellor’s political acumen – and £100,000 of his own money – kept him afloat in Surrey’s sea change.

By Will Dunn

“This is the Holy Grail,” one Lib Dem told me as we sat waiting for the count in Godalming and Ash. He and his colleagues were very pleased to have returned their party to the kind of representation it had in 2010, before their coalition with the Tories turned to calamity. They also seemed a little crestfallen, though they wouldn’t say it: the more exuberant pollsters had begun to suggest that the Lib Dems could become the official opposition, and it seemed some in the party had believed the hype.

Among the seats the Lib Dems wanted to win from the Tories there was no higher prize than Godalming and Ash: no party has ever unseated a sitting Chancellor of the Exchequer. For decades this has been among the most tastefully upholstered of Tory seats, held for unbroken decades by cabinet ministers. Hunt held South West Surrey for 19 years before it was redefined by boundary changes. His predecessor in the seat, Virginia Bottomley (a fellow health secretary) held it for her entire 21-year stint in the Commons. Before that it belonged to Maurice Macmillan (son of Harold), who held it and its predecessor, Farnham, for 28 years.

Conservatives supporting the Tory candidate for neighbouring Farnham and Bordon, Greg Stafford, told me their candidate was a local through and through – people on the doorstep remembered his grandparents’ sweet shop – and that he was, like Hunt, a person of “strong moral values”. They were clearly bitterly disappointed in the character flaws expressed elsewhere in their party, such as the allegations of gambling on insider information and Sunak’s early swerve from the D-Day commemorations, but they saw Hunt the local MP as different to Hunt the Chancellor. And on one point, they agreed with the Labour candidate, James Walsh: Surrey has changed.

“Ten years ago, this was all blue,” Walsh told me. These districts were once walled off to younger commuters by the time and money a daily commute into London would cost, but the pandemic shift to fewer hours in the office has significantly changed the arithmetic on living here. Large numbers of people who previously lived in London moved into the Blue Wall, seeking more space and houses that are (slightly) more affordable. A young Conservative supporter agreed that the urban outflow was redrawing the Blue Wall. When canvassing they could no longer be sure that the voters opening doors were readers of the Telegraph.  

Nor, perhaps, could they rely so completely on the loyalty of their base. Graham Drage, the Reform candidate, is a very different proposition to the candidates his party fielded in other seats. He runs a small business making wine cellars and was comfortable using phrases like “high net worth client base”. Drage did not mention immigration to me once. He said he had voted Tory since he was a (politics) student, but that the three main parties were now “almost indistinguishable”,  and that Reform was “duty-bound” to offer a “centre-right option”. Here was a Tory, he seemed to say, for people who were fed up with the Tories.

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By the time the returning officer took the stage, the Tories had already lost 28 seats to the Lib Dems, and Hunt’s former colleagues in the cabinet were being toppled. A lengthy wait ensued as the final count was discussed. Rain began to patter on the steel roof of the leisure centre. Then a whisper went through the crowd that the Lib Dem candidate, Paul Follows, had conceded. The returning officer confirmed it: Hunt, who had reportedly spent £100,000 of his own money defending the seat, had clung to it by fewer than 900 votes. A groan went out as Hunt’s tally was read, and his short victory speech was punctuated by sarcastic laughter and muttered heckles from disappointed Lib Dems.

“This is the magic of democracy,” Hunt concluded, as other Blue Wall seats turned red and yellow around him. What kept him in place, as his cabinet colleagues fell, was his history of local involvement. Unlike other Conservatives who passed over their constituents for broadcast careers, Hunt has invested many years in building a reputation as a personable and effective MP. Ultimately, his voters were able to separate Hunt, their local representative, from the Chancellor and his party who had failed in their management of the state. No magic there: only the perseverance and acumen of a committed political survivor.

[See also: After a historic Labour victory, I’m choosing hope]

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