IN PUBLIC, Conservative politicians have been insisting that their party’s crushing by-election defeat in Chesham and Amersham is a one-off, caused by local concerns about the route of the HS2 railway line and fears that the reform of government planning laws will weaken the ability of local people to object to building on their doorsteps. But, behind the scenes, dozens of Conservative MPs in other Remain-voting seats have formed a WhatsApp group to discuss how to prevent their being swept from Parliament by the Liberal Democrats at the next General Election.
The scale of the defeat has put paid to the idea that Boris Johnson is an unbeatable political campaigner. But it has also cast doubt on his strategy of love-bombing Labour seats in the north of England while taking for granted the support of Conservative voters in the south.
A similar strategy had worked for Tony Blair when he switched the focus of New Labour to the middle classes in the south, safe in the assumption that the north would never go Tory. Mr Johnson inverted that, focusing on the northern working class, assuming that the southern middle classes had nowhere else to go. That may have been true when Jeremy Corbyn was Labour leader, and the coalition-tainted Liberal Democrats were in the electoral wilderness. But things are different now.
Mr Johnson’s “levelling-up” strategy brought huge success at the last General Election. It appeared still to be working last month when his party took Hartlepool, which had been a Labour stronghold for 57 years. “Vote Conservative, get a factory,” one local wag summarised the tactic. Now, the polls are suggesting that this carrot-dangling will bring another victory next week in the by-election in the Yorkshire town of Batley.
But at a cost. A number of voters in Amersham complained that “levelling up” the north meant neglecting the south. The landslide defeat has not come out of the blue. In much of the Remain-voting Home Counties, the Tory vote has been falling since the EU Referendum. In the local elections, held on the same day as the Hartlepool by-election, the Conservatives lost vote share in many southern counties — and that came on top of large losses of councillors in the 2019 local elections.
What appears to be happening, politics academics suggest, is that Brexit has accelerated changes in political demographics which were already under way — and in which the Conservative Party appears to be on the wrong side of history. Its support is greatest among older voters. Meanwhile, among younger voters, Tory support is strongest among socially conservative white school-leavers, who are a declining group in an electorate that is becoming more graduate-heavy and more ethnically diverse.
Mr Johnson’s response to that has been to amplify the populist rhetoric that served him so effectively during Brexit. He has unleashed a divisive “culture wars” agenda: ministers are blowing dog-whistles about sausage wars, statues of slavers, footballers’ taking the knee, and students’ removing portraits of the Queen from their common room. These are nakedly divisive attempts to draw attention away from the Government’s general pandemic incompetence. Some may be taken in by all that. But the result in Amersham shows that Boris is not fooling all of the people all of the time.