Seats don’t come much safer than Chesham and Amersham, a true blue slice of Buckinghamshire which has returned Conservative MPs with massive majorities since it was created in 1974. Not any more. The Liberal Democrats overturned a 16,000-vote majority to take the seat on Thursday on a 25-point swing, more than doubling their vote as Conservative support collapsed.
The defeat will send shivers down the spines of dozens of Conservatives representing southern Remain-leaning seats where the Lib Dems surged in 2019, including senior figures such as Dominic Raab, Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove. It is no longer just Labour with heartlands headaches.
While the Liberal Democrats were doubtless boosted by local discontents over HS2 and home building, the result last week reflects broader trends that are likely to pose problems for the Tories. The Brexit realignment which propelled the Conservatives into a dominant position in many northern and Midlands seats also leaves the party exposed in its southern heartlands. Much of the home counties voted Remain in 2016 and in many seats the Conservative vote has been drifting downwards ever since the EU referendum.
Blue-wall Conservatives have so far been saved by three factors, none of which can be relied upon in future: a strong starting position, fragmented opposition and hostility to Labour. Many home counties Tory MPs saw their majorities slashed in 2019, but held on because their opponents’ vote was split, and a crucial slice of Conservative Remainers could not stomach the risk of a Lib Dem-enabled Corbyn government. At the next election these MPs will face determined opponents starting from a stronger position, and therefore better able to squeeze Labour and Green support. And it won’t be so easy to stir up home counties’ fears of a minority Labour government led by a former barrister and director of public prosecutions who was raised in Surrey. Tory Remainers who held their noses in 2019 may not do so again.
Nor is Brexit partisanship the only problem for the Conservatives in such seats. The EU referendum has accelerated political changes long in train, as demographic changes reshape the electorate. The Conservatives are on the wrong side of these changes. They are strongest among socially conservative white school-leavers, a declining group in an electorate that is becoming more graduate-heavy and ethnically diverse. The Tories dominate among the old while struggling among the young.
This is not a new problem. Theresa May and Lord Ashcroft warned about alienating rising groups in the electorate in the early 2000s, and David Cameron won the leadership in part by pledging to refresh his party’s image. Then Brexit happened and Cameron’s successors discovered a different route to a majority – not by adapting to demographic change, but instead running full steam against it. The party leaned into the new identity conflicts between graduates and school-leavers, nationalists and internationalists, Leavers and Remainers, and unlocked a majority in 2019 by mobilising the anxieties of older, socially conservative voters.
Yet this new majority depended not only on gaining the votes of alienated Leave voters in the red wall, but also on retaining sufficient support from Remain-leaning traditional Tories in the south. Brexit brought together a coalition whose interests are often at odds. Alienated red-wall voters were recruited on a promise of radical change to a broken system. Home Counties Conservative voters are beneficiaries of the status quo, and back the Conservatives out of a desire to retain it. Northern Tories have been promised massive investment to rebalance the economy; southern Tories benefit from the current imbalance and will foot the bill for change.
The demographic tides running against the party are flowing even faster and could drive a backlash against it in the south
Conservative optimists will hope Chesham and Amersham is a blip – a brief howl of midterm protest from voters who will return to the fold come general election time, as they have in the past. The fissile resentments of Labour’s red wall need not transfer to a more prosperous and contented part of the country. But Conservative pessimists will worry that the demographic tides running against the party are flowing even faster in seats filling up with young graduate professionals priced out of London, and that the same identity-focused politics that has driven their party’s rise in the north could drive a backlash against it in the south.
Chesham and Amersham is a reminder of the tensions in the new Conservative coalition, which will only grow as the unifying cause of Brexit fades. Recent history provides a troubling precedent for Conservatives looking more than one election ahead. Under Tony Blair, New Labour built an election-winning machine on the back of a simple gamble – focus on the southern middle classes because the northern working classes had nowhere else to go. Boris Johnson’s 2019 majority was premised on the same gamble in reverse – cater to the anxieties of northern Leavers, because home counties Remainers have no viable alternative. Yet as Labour discovered after Blair, even generations of loyalty can only be stretched so far. And when it breaks, it breaks hard.
Robert Ford is professor of politics at the University of Manchester. His most recent book is Brexitland: Identity, Diversity and the Reshaping of British Politics, co-written with Maria Sobolewska, and published by Cambridge University Press (£15.99)