By Duncan Flynn, Director of Northern Home Counties
The election of Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Green in the Chesham & Amersham Parliamentary by-election is every bit as sensational as last month’s emphatic Conservative gain in the former Labour bastion of Hartlepool. Not only did the Liberal Democrats wipe out a majority of over 16,000 accumulated by the late Dame Cheryl Gillan, they replaced it with a resounding majority of over 8,000 of their own over Conservative candidate Peter Fleet. All this in a seat the Conservatives have held for the past hundred years. The result was reminiscent of the 1990s when the Liberal Democrats routinely scored eye-watering swings against the Conservatives to gain the most unlikely Parliamentary seats in by-elections. The sign that the Liberal Democrats formidable by-election machine has been reassembled will strike fear into the heart of Conservative Campaign Headquarters.
On one level this result can easily be dismissed as a perfect storm of national issues which were cleverly exploited by the Liberal Democrats for collective maximum impact. Most notably, Chesham & Amersham is on the line of route of HS2 which is now inflicting visible scars on the Chilterns landscape through construction works and is understandably deeply unpopular in the constituency. The Conservative Government’s refusal to cancel the project presented an opportunity for the Liberal Democrats despite their Parliamentary caucus voting in favour of HS2. An equally important issue on the doorsteps of the Chilterns was the Government’s Planning Bill which was characterised by the Liberal Democrats as a developer’s charter which would concrete over the Chilterns. In reality, the Bill is more complex however this is a part of the world which has consistently demonstrated its innate scepticism towards large scale housing development so this was fertile territory for the Liberal Democrats to target. We are now likely to see other Conservative MPs add their voice to that of former Prime Minister Theresa May who has spoken out against the Bill and further amendments to the legislation to reduce the housing numbers required in the Home Counties now appear likely. Lingering concerns over Brexit (the constituency voted Remain) and frustrations resulting from the missed lifting of lockdown restrictions also undoubtedly contributed to the scale of the Conservative defeat.
However, purely seeing this striking result through the prism of recent national issues ignores the wider point that the Conservative Party is in long-term retreat across much of the affluent Home Counties which has been its historic heartland. The recent local elections saw the Party lose control of Oxfordshire and Cambridgeshire County Councils, have its majority significantly trimmed in Hertfordshire and Surrey County Councils and even saw true blue Tunbridge Wells lost. These results followed on from similar losses at the 2019 Local Elections which saw such former strongholds such as South Oxfordshire, Guildford and Waverley lost. If you talk to most Conservative councillors from across the Home Counties, they will tell you the same tale of formerly loyal middle class supporters in affluent areas withholding their support while simultaneously there is something of a surge in Conservative support on former council estates among working class voters. Unfortunately for the Conservatives, there are not too many former council estates in Chesham & Amersham. The question that many loyal Conservative foot soldiers in the Home Counties will be asking is whether this electoral repudiation serves to recalibrate the Government’s strategy of focusing on converting former Labour voters in working class areas of the North and Midlands through the promotion of “culture war” campaigns at the expense of middle class Conservatives in its traditional Southern heartlands such as Chesham & Amersham.
Undoubtedly, this was an outstanding win for the Liberal Democrats and it represents a considerable fillip for a Party which was struggling for relevance in the immediate aftermath of Brexit. However, the most prescient immediate question is how the Conservative Government responds to this proverbial slap in the face from the well-mannered burghers of Buckinghamshire.