Boris Johnson was defeated in a by-election today, sparking speculation that the Tory “Blue Wall” encircling London is beginning to disintegrate.
The Conservatives were left reeling after a “surprise” loss in Chesham and Amersham, where they saw a majority of more than 16,000 disappear, with the Liberal Democrats winning by more than 8,000 votes.
Kit Malthouse, the home secretary, told Times Radio, “I can’t pretend it’s anything other than a terrible disappointment.”
The constituency was a Tory stronghold, with just two Conservative MPs representing it since its inception in 1974.
Mr Malthouse disputed that the “Blue Wall” in the Home Counties was now in jeopardy, but he did concede that the Conservatives will do a “significant post-match analysis” of what went wrong.
Sir John Curtice, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, emphasised the importance of local concerns such as HS2 and planning changes.
But he also told The Standard: “This is a degree-heavy, very middle class, Remain-voting constituency in the South East…It therefore shares qualities with quite a few other constituencies in or near (the London area) where the Liberal Democrats did relatively well in 2019, Wimbledon, City of London, Esher and Walton, and quite a few seats in Surrey, where they are breaching down the Tories’ neck.
“This is the counterpoint to Boris Johnson’s substantial success in picking up working class, Leave voters particularly in the North of England and the Midlands.”
However, he emphasised that the Lib-Dems’ job now was to see whether they could cut through with clear messaging to develop support in other districts.
Lib-Dem leader Sir Ed Davey said on BBC Breakfast, “I think this will send a shockwave through British politics.”
Suggesting that dozens of Tory seats could fall in the South, he added: “People talked about the Red Wall in the North, but forgotten about the Blue Wall in the South, and that’s going to come tumbling down if this result is mimicked across this country.”
The by-election was caused by the death of former Cabinet minister Dame Cheryl Gillan, who won the seat with a majority of 16,233 votes (55% of the vote) in the 2019 general election.
Lib Dem Sarah Green received 56.7% of the vote, giving her a margin of 8,028 over the Conservatives in second place.
The Conservatives attempted to minimise the damage by claiming it was difficult for ruling parties to win by-elections, but candidate Peter Fleet, who lost, said the Conservatives needed to re-establish “trust and understanding” with voters.
Ms Green stated in her winning speech, “Tonight, the voice of Chesham and Amersham is unambiguous.” We have stated as a group, ‘Enough is enough, we will be heard, and this government will listen.'”
Tory chairwoman Amanda Milling stated that the “work begins now to demonstrate how Conservatives can deliver on the people’s issues and recover their support.”
According to a Conservative insider, “By-elections are always tough for the governing party, especially after 11 years in power, but there is no getting around the reality that this is a very disappointing result.”
The win surprised the bookies, who had the Conservatives as strong favourites and the Lib Dems at 4/1 with Ladbrokes.
“It is fair to say that this was a night for the punters,” the firm said.
Speaking to the BBC, Conservative candidate Peter Fleet warned against reading “too much” into his defeat arguing that the result was caused by “very local circumstances”.
But Bob Seely – Conservative MP for the Isle of Wight – told the BBC the government “badly needs to think again about planning”.
“This entire system feeds the over-development of the south and the under-development of other areas. It needs to change.”
Polling Expert Prof Sir John Curtice said “in Remain-voting middle class seats in the South of England, the Conservative coalition has been weakened to some degree in the wake of Brexit – the Liberal Democrats are best placed to profit from that.”
For the Liberal Democrats, this will go down in history as one of the most memorable by-election upsets.
The revival of traditional Lib Dem “pavement politics” – tireless lobbying on local issues such as HS2, which the party supports nationally but opposes locally – might be on the horizon.
The apparent reaction to the government’s planning changes is more concerning for the Conservatives.
But are there any broader implications to be drawn?
According to the Lib Dems, the UK’s political geography is shifting.
In the recent local elections in England, the party made gains into some traditional Conservative districts, many of which had Remain majorities in the 2016 EU vote.
Some Conservative councillors were concerned that their party’s concentration on “levelling up” and former Labour seats in northern England would make some southern voters feel left behind.
However, the Conservatives have gained more ground in the North than they have lost in the South thus far.
Labour’s Vote in Chesham and Amersham was Decimated
It is obvious that there was tactical voting to get rid of the Conservatives.
What may be more alarming to Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is the magnitude of this, as well as the fact that the party’s vote was as firm as quicksand.
The death of former Welsh Secretary Dame Cheryl Gillan in April prompted the by-election.
In 2019, she was re-elected with over half the vote. However, the Conservative majority has progressively declined since the 2015 general election, with a majority of 23,920, with UKIP polling in second.
In 2017, it was 22,140, with Labour coming in second with 11,374, and in 2019, the Liberal Democrats received the second-most votes, scooping up 13% more than they did in 2017.
Ben Nunn, the head of communications for Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, resigned after the by-election. It was a “personal decision,” he told the BBC.