The Sunday Telegraph
Yes, voters were concerned about HS2 and planning, but also the party’s shift from traditional Tory values
Icongratulate Liberal Democrat Sarah Green for winning the Chesham and Amersham byelection. As the Conservative candidate, I am deeply disappointed that I was unable to retain the late Dame Cheryl Gillan’s seat for my party. Dame Cheryl, like Sir Ian Gilmour before her, served the people of this constituency with enormous distinction. Sarah Green has large shoes to fill.
We must be humble in our defeat. We must listen to the voters. Extraordinary local issues were much to the fore in this by-election, but there were national concerns as well.
HS2 is deeply resented in this part of the country. Residents only see the cost, both financial and environmental, for no gain. Ancient woodlands have been destroyed. Beautiful landscapes have been scarred. “Florence” the HS2 tunnel boring machine (surely an abuse of The Magic Roundabout heroine) started digging operations on the first full day of campaigning, raising fears of the unknown risks to the fragile chalk aquifer beneath the Misbourne Valley, our water supplies and precious chalk streams. The monolithic Environment Agency has so far refused to install a comprehensive inspection regime into the HS2 tunnelling operations control centre. Ministers must instruct them to think again.
Even though the Lib Dem 2019 manifesto confirmed their commitment to proceeding with HS2 (and not a single Lib Dem MP voted against the HS2 Bill), the Lib Dem candidate managed to cast herself as being against HS2. I am in awe of her ability to present black as white! Her canvassers promised that “if elected, Sarah Green’s first act would be to cancel HS2”. Electors angry at the project were ready to take this promise at face value.
On planning reform, the prime minister demonstrates admirable restraint in accusing the Lib Dems of pushing a “wilful misunderstanding” of the forthcoming Planning Bill. The Lib Dems claimed that changes would give greedy developers “a free hand to build whatever they want” across the Chilterns. It did not help my cause that prominent Conservatives were quoted front and centre of the Lib Dem leaflets which advanced this pernicious charge.
As a party we need to do better at conducting policy debates in private.
I argued that the Planning Bill would help speed-up the redevelopment of brownfield sites for the construction of affordable housing in Chesham and Amersham while providing important protections for our green open spaces. Ministers must ensure that this is how the Bill can be presented. I also promised that I would work with ministers to elevate the Chilterns Area of Outstanding National Beauty into the Chilterns National Park to safeguard the unique character of our living landscape for generations to come. I will continue this campaign.
The appalling state of our local roads was an issue repeatedly raised on the doorsteps. Supported by additional funds from the Government, I know that Conservative Buckinghamshire council has a plan to fill the potholes. This is an existing plan, not as she will doubtless claim an early win for our new Lib Dem MP.
Some Conservatives lent their vote to the Lib Dems to register their protest on HS2, planning and the state of our roads. Many more simply stayed at home. These stay-at-home Tories want to hear more about traditional Conservative values. While they fully recognise that we had to commit emergency wartime levels of public expenditure to deal with Covid, they are now looking for clear evidence that their Conservative government will restore fiscal discipline at the earliest possible opportunity. They fear a return to a bloated public sector which stifles private enterprise and demands ever higher taxes. They very much like and respect Rishi Sunak. And they do not expect fretful Tory backbenchers to push the chancellor into saying yes to every request for more and more public spending from the benches opposite.
While I wish her well, we now have a Lib Dem MP for Chesham and Amersham who will be powerless to enact change. She will shout from the sidelines, trying to claim local credit for the successes of our Conservative government and Buckinghamshire council while disowning any necessary but unpopular decision. We know the Lib Dem playbook. We will have to get used to being more politically partisan than has been the norm in this part of the world.
This was a thumping by-election defeat for the Conservatives. As the Conservative candidate this happened on my watch. I love living here in the Chilterns with my family. And I am not going anywhere. I will continue as a local Conservative to do everything that I can to restore faith and trust with the electors of Chesham and Amersham.