Years away from the next General Election, the results of local by-elections are only a minor concern.
However, the result is a yardstick for how the voting public is feeling – and so the crushing defeat for the Conservatives in the Chesham and Amersham by-election is noteworthy.
The Tories have held this seat since the constituency was formed in 1974, and so the fact that they have tasted defeat – and by a considerable margin too – is an indicator, perhaps, of the national view of their efforts since the start of the pandemic.
The Liberal Democrats and their candidate Sarah Green won by more than 8,000 votes to condemn the Tories to their first defeat in this ward in five decades.
It was a loss built on local issues, according to Boris Johnson, with the Lib Dems opposing the building of the HS2 rail line through the constituency – something the Tories have supported.
There have also been concerns about the Conservatives’ planning reforms, which would see more new homes built in rural areas.
In her victory speech, Green said: “Tonight the voice of Chesham and Amersham is unmistakable. Together we have said, ‘enough is enough, we will be heard and this government will listen.”
Boris Johnson called the defeat ‘disappointing’, but blamed the result on hyper local issues and misinformation. He claimed there had been a ‘wilful misunderstanding’ about his party’s plans for new housing, and that they had no intention of allowing developers to ‘build all over the countryside.’
Are the Conservatives Over-Reliant on Boris the Bulldozer?
On a national scale, it doesn’t seem as if the Conservatives are in any grave danger.
They are priced at 1/2 with the bookmakers to win the most seats at the General Election, but it’s at the local level – where Johnson’s popularity cannot be tapped into – where the Tories might be poised to struggle.
The post-Covid boom will soon be over, and perhaps replaced by the reporting on the independent public inquiry into how the government managed their response to the pandemic.
Dominic Cummins continues to undermine Boris, and his latest pipebomb – the leaked texts that revealed the PM calling health secretary Matt Hancock ‘useless’ – also do little to further cohesion in the ranks.
Hancock is useless, that we know, and he’s a criminal too – confirmed in court when revelations of his dodgy dealings were made public. But he’s also a senior minister, and his continued presence in Boris’ top team continue to undermine the prime minister’s integrity.
Johnson has focused on ‘levelling up’ England, and that has meant pandering to the north of the country with promises of investment and infrastructure. Whether that ever appears remains to be seen, but there’s definitely a case to say that voters in the south feel alienated by Boris’ focus north of Watford Gap.
There has been plenty of talk about Labour’s ‘red wall’ crumbling during the last few elections on the back of Boris’ bombast, but maybe now the Tories will see their own blue wall eaten into if they don’t focus on the politics that erected their foundation in the first place.
Brexit’s Shadow Looming At the Polls
One of the interesting things about Chesham and Amersham is that, person for person, they had the largest turnout for the EU referendum in any mainland constitution.
And those voters, out in their droves, voted 55%-45% in favour of Remain – so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the Tories were voted out at the next available opportunity.
Contrast that to Hartlepool, which has been a Labour stronghold for a long time. But the Brexit vote saw Leave win comprehensively, and in the next ballot in the area it was the Conservatives who prospered.
There is a trend then for local politics to follow the direction of the EU referendum in regional elections, and if that holds water it could spell problems for the Tories.
Yes, the Leave vote won fair and square, but it was close – 52% against 48% to be precise.
If local elections reflect that in the next few years, the Conservatives will see their considerable lead on the national scale eroded. Constituencies that voted Remain, if they aren’t already, will switch to the centre-left – and when you factor in the fallout of the pandemic, which surely won’t go well for the Tories, the movement may be even more significant.
That said, the issue – a perennial one of the left – is the convergence between Labour and Lib Dem voters. As seen in Chesham and Amersham, voters sacrificed their Labour roots to vote for the Liberal Democrats….simply as a means for ousting the Tories.
But the truth is that tactical voting suits the Conservatives – the choice between the opposition in left-leaning constituencies dilutes their power considerably.