Boris Johnson’s breezy attempt to brush off his party’s dramatic defeat in a byelection in Chesham & Amersham as the result of “particular circumstances” will cut little ice with the growing number of Conservative MPs in the south of England who are unhappy about the direction his government is taking.
The particular circumstances which drove the Liberal Democrats’ biggest victory for 30 years were local discontent over HS2, a high-speed rail line, and the government’s plans to liberalise planning laws.
Unfortunately for Johnson, planning issues exercise traditional Conservative voters in many constituencies in the southeast of the country, some of whom deserted the party at last month’s local elections, leading to unexpected losses in Surrey and Cambridge.
The planning reform aims to ease the housing crisis by making it easier for developers to build despite local opposition and many Conservative voters are worried about its impact on their local environment and the value of their houses.
Conservative MPs from traditional English heartlands are growing impatient with Johnson’s focus on the seats he won from Labour in 2019 in Brexit-backing parts of the Midlands and the North of England.
Fifty-five per cent of voters in Chesham & Amersham opposed Brexit and Tory canvassers reported that many expressed dislike for Johnson and were unimpressed by his government’s enthusiasm for culture wars.
The byelection showed that loosening party loyalties, which benefited the Conservatives in 2019, can cut both ways and the size of the Liberal Democrat majority owed much to anti-Tory voters’ willingness to vote tactically.
The result is a major boost for the Liberal Democrats and their leader Ed Davey after a grim period of irrelevance and invisibility since the last general election. The party is in second place in 89 seats in the country, and in 79 of them they are challenging the Conservatives.
Tactical voting goes some of the way towards explaining Labour’s derisory 622 votes, which gave them their lowest vote share ever in a byelection. But it comes as Keir Starmer’s leadership is under pressure, with muttering against him from within the parliamentary party growing louder.
The Liberal Democrat victory robs the Labour leader of his best excuse for poor electoral performance – that the vaccine bounce has thrown a ring of protection around the government.
If Labour loses a byelection in Batley & Spen in two weeks, as many within the party believe is likely, Starmer’s critics from both the left and the right of the party will be further emboldened.