The Herald on Sunday
Chesham was bad news for the Tories ... but worse for Labour
AT Question Time last week, Keir Starmer, avoided all mention of Dominic Cummings’s latest substack broadside against Boris Johnson. The consensus in the media pack was that the PM’s former chief adviser’s views didn’t matter, politically. That he was pursuing a personal vendetta.
So what if Johnson said his Health Secretary was “f****** useless”, lied about herd immunity, rambles incoherently at Covid meetings and is already planning to leave office to make more money? People know Boris is a bit of a chancer. It’s priced in. Everyone said.
But perhaps not in Chesham and Amersham.
This was the biggest by-election shock for the Tories in half a century. This affluent Buckinghamshire seat had been Conservative forever. At the last election, in 2019, the late Dame Cheryl Gillan received more votes than all the other parties combined. The 25 per cent swing can’t all be down to HS2 and planning reforms. Voters knew about the new fast rail link years ago, and the
Chiltern Society was campaigning against the 11,000 houses on the green belt well before the 2019 General Election.
At first sight the result might seem to accord with the Blue Wall theory of an ideological realignment in British politics. Educated, socially liberal Remainers, it is said, are turning away from the Conservatives in elite constituencies in the South, while the Tories have been picking up socially conservative ex-Labour Brexit voters in the Red
Wall, like Hartlepool. It seems to make sense. Chesham and
Amersham is just outside London, a Labour/Remain stronghold.
However, Labour arguably had a worse night here than the Tories, losing their deposit with only 622 votes. It was Labour’s worst-ever by-election defeat, and a blow to Sir Keir Starmer’s attempt to reposition Labour as a centrist party of government. As recently as 2017, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour returned 11,374 votes in Chesham.
Even allowing for tactical voting to the LibDems, this was a shocker and revived #StarmerMustGo on Labour’s favourite message board, Twitter. If Labour go on to lose the Batley and Spen by-election in Yorkshire next month, he might have to. The latest Survation poll has the Tories ahead by 6%, with the indefatigable George Galloway campaigning hard against the Labour leader.
Moreover, Chesham is not a woke, university constituency like Canterbury with lots of students and academics. As recently as December 2019, in the Get Brexit Done election, voters here delivered a 16,000 majority to the decidedly unwoke Dame Cheryl Gillan, a Brexiter who has voted consistently against immigration and for tougher rules for asylum seekers. All those “educated” Buckinghamshire voters
were presumably aware of her record in Parliament, which was anything but social or liberal. She consistently voted against higher taxes, gay marriage and in defence of fox hunting and a reduction in welfare benefits.
She did, of course, also vote against the HS2 fast rail link, work on which has turned large parts of the Chiltern Hills into a building site, and was concerned about the invasion of affordable homes on the green belt.
These were the issues that are supposed to have delivered the Liberal Democrats their best result since Orpington. But since the Liberal Democrats actually support HS2 and want to see more new homes built than the Tories, this only confuses the picture further.
Of course, Ed Davey, the triumphant LibDem leader, after smashing a lego blue wall with an orange hammer, said that the proposals for Chesham are “the wrong kind of homes” and that the Tories had “failed to consult local people” on HS2.
But that is a poor explanation for how an avowedly green party with a commitment to mass housing won a by-election on nimbyism and opposition to fast rail. Rather, it was the old Liberal “community politics” in action: take whatever is causing most trouble for the party in power and campaign relentlessly against it.
This will be a caution to those in the Labour party who are again talking about a “progressive alliance” with the LibDems. Whenever Labour are in opposition for any length of time this idea is floated.
It goes back to the 1980s when the Liberal-SDP Alliance, as they were then, were piling votes in general elections without gaining many seats because of the first past the post voting system.
“Wasted votes” said Guardian columnists like Polly Toynbee, who has long argued it is the duty of Labour and the Liberal Democrats to overturn tribalism and unite against the right.
Discussion of a progressive alliance has been mooted by the former Labour PM, Tony Blair, the Labour pressure group Compass, and the soft-left MP Clive Lewis.
But Chesham gives precious little comfort to those seeking any such alliance. It shows how difficult it is to pin the Liberal Democrats down to a consistent policy agenda. The
LibDems’ last alliance was with the very unprogressive Conservatives in 2010, when they supported the austerity policies of George Osborne. They abandoned their promise to scrap university tuition fees. It was a disaster and leader Nick Clegg, who has since departed for Silicon Valley where he acts as a high-end lobbyist for Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.
To many Labour activists, who have to deal with the Liberal Democrats in local elections, Chesham just confirms that they are an opportunist party which can’t be trusted. There seems little likelihood of Labour forming any kind of electoral pact with this shape shifting political entity. It would also mean introducing proportional representation, which many in Labour oppose.
Anyway, it’s much too soon to say that the Liberal Democrats have become a force again in British politics. In the latest YouGov poll this month they are two points behind the Greens on 7%. They have never recovered from the coalition with the Tories after which they went from 57 seats in the Commons to just 8.
There was little sign of recovery under Jo Swinson in 2019, even though they were the “stop Brexit” party and hoped to collect pro-Europe votes. They now have 12 seats.
So, just what was going on in the minds of those Tory voters in Bucks? Well, the former Tory cabinet minster, Dominic Grieve, thinks it’s all about the character of Boris Johnson.
Grieve used to sit in Parliament for the neighbouring Beaconsfield seat, claims to know voters in the area well, and says they regard the PM as a “charlatan”.
Mr Grieve is hardly an unbiased observer, since he was sacked by Johnson, but there may be something in what he says.
As they went to the polls, Chesham voters had the venomous revelations of Dominic Cummings, who they probably dislike as much as Boris, ringing in their ears.
These blue-chip Tories perhaps wanted to send a message that they really don’t approve of this bumbling Prime Minister, who talks about letting bodies pile up in the streets and has made a mess of Brexit.
Chesham was less a woke wave than a rebellion against a lightweight leader with a record of untruths, a chaotic private life and dodgy finances. Perhaps The Dom did some damage after all.