The startling collapse of the blue wall

·8 min read
The startling collapse of the blue wall
The startling collapse of the blue wall

For the Conservative Party, the facts about the Tiverton and Horniton by-election are ugly: the loss of one of its safest seats, the greatest wipe-out of a majority in history, and the resignation of its chairman from a cabinet that had seemed unaware such an option existed. Psephologists projected that were the result repeated nationally, the Tories would lose 333 of their remaining 357 MPs to the Lib Dems. That won’t happen: but Friday’s result was seismic, and if the party is to be saved its elite will have to exert some leadership.

Tiverton, after the similarly massive defeat in Owen Paterson’s North Shropshire seat last December, and in Chesham and Amersham a year ago, proves the crumbling of the Red Wall is not all the Conservatives must brood about: the Blue Wall, seats that stayed Tory even during the Blair landslide of 1997 and the locust years of the 2000s, is questioning its allegiance. Many factors, notably the moral and personal conduct of senior Conservatives and the negative perception of the party’s competence and fundamental conservatism, have gone to the heart of why people have chosen not to support it.

In his victor’s speech on Friday the new Lib Dem MP, Richard Foord, a decorated Iraq veteran, said “every day Boris Johnson clings to office he brings further shame, chaos and neglect. The only decent course of action would be to resign.” He then repeated the D-word, for it underlines what he and millions in the Blue Wall understand to be lost after the assault on Tory values they feel this Government has conducted. “If you don’t take action to restore decency, respect and British values in Downing Street,” he told the Conservative Party, “you too will face election defeats like the one we have seen tonight. You know in your heart your leader is not the person to lead this great country into the future.”

Sir Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, added that “the people of Tiverton and Honiton have spoken for the country. The public is sick of Boris Johnson’s lies and law-breaking and it’s time for Conservative MPs to finally do the right thing and sack him.”

British Liberal Democrat MP for Tiverton and Honiton Richard Foord and Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey attend a victory rally in Tiverton - Reuters
British Liberal Democrat MP for Tiverton and Honiton Richard Foord and Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey attend a victory rally in Tiverton - Reuters

And Sir Keir Starmer, reflecting on Labour’s less overwhelming, but still significant, victory in Wakefield (whose last Tory MP is in prison for paedophilia) observed “If they had any decency, they’d get out the way for the next Labour government.” His victorious candidate, Simon Lightwood, touched the raw nerve when he said: “Boris Johnson, your contempt for this country is no longer tolerated.”

A decoding of the resignation letter from Oliver Dowden, the ex-party chairman, reveals similar sentiments. He sent it in what appeared to be a mixture of fury and disgust at 5.35am. It contained no endorsement of Mr Johnson. It specified that “our supporters are distressed and disappointed by recent events” – a reference to ‘Partygate’ – “and I share their feelings.” In an especially pointed reference to the Cabinet's role as a council and not as a rubber-stamp for its leader, he added: “We cannot carry on with business as usual. Someone must take responsibility.”

Labour winning red-wall Wakefield was routine for a by-election in a government-held marginal. However, the catastrophe in Tiverton was no typical mid-term defeat. It was, rather, an indication of how far Conservatives have haemorrhaged support in seats whose loyalty it once took for granted. 

Among 2019’s Conservative voters, support and regard for the party has tanked since the start of the pandemic in early 2020. According to YouGov, 81 per cent of these voters thought their party was best at handling defence then; now it is 60 per cent. On handling Brexit, support has dropped from 86 per cent to 59 per cent. Approval of its economic handling is even worse, down from 87 to 54 per cent; of its taxation policy, down from 78 to 49 per cent; of its education policy, down from 71 to 43 per cent; of its law and order policy down from 85 to 57 per cent; and of immigration and asylum policy from 75 to 51 per cent. 

Other findings are even worse. In 2020, 85 per cent of Conservative voters thought their party competent; now it is just 35 per cent. Only eight per cent thought Tories were in it for themselves; now 40 per cent do. Then, seven per cent thought the party out of touch; now 48 per cent do.

YouGov’s findings for Conservative voters in the south of England outside London – the Blue Wall – are even worse. There, only 28 per cent think the party best equipped to handle the consequences of Brexit; 27 per cent rate its economic competence above other parties; 25 per cent prefer its handling of taxation, the same proportion as think it has a sense of purpose. 

Also in the Blue Wall, 61 per cent of Conservative voters think the party is in it for themselves, the same proportion as regard it as untrustworthy. Sixty-six per cent think it is out of touch. For a Conservative Party that must hold its heartland if it is to have any prospect of winning another mandate, these figures are horrific. Were Labour to acquire a charismatic leader and a vision, the Tories would be past the point of no return.

Traditional Conservative voters have a certain idea of conservatism, and of the seriousness and propriety with which MPs and especially ministers should conduct themselves in public life. They expect them to respect the constitution, the written and unwritten rules of parliamentary and political conduct, and to hold the rule of law sacrosanct. These assumptions and expectations have been shattered, which is why Tiverton’s Tory candidate was howled down when she sought to defend Mr Johnson’s integrity. He and his Chancellor broke the law but saw no reason to resign. They were supported in this by the entire Cabinet and almost all the Government, none of whom felt this law-breaking to be worth worrying about. Only a junior colleague, the justice minister Lord Wolfson, felt unable to remain in the Government because of the attitude this displayed towards the rule of law.

In that, whether they realised it or not – and it is no secret that some, possibly including Mr Dowden, did – these leading Conservatives were wildly out of touch with grass-roots feeling. The Tiverton result suggests that even ‘wildly’ may be an understatement. The values of  ‘decent’ Conservative voters exclude endorsing law-breaking, especially laws that so many of them scrupulously obeyed despite, at times, grave personal cost. They also don’t include generally bending, breaking and ignoring rules in the way that caused the resignation the week before last of Lord Geidt, formerly the government’s ethics adviser.

However, it is not just moral and ethical failings , or the tactical voting that occurred in both by-elections, that caused the vote’s collapse. Its core vote, feels the party does a pretty poor impersonation of being Conservative. This is despite rhetorical flourishes about party-pleasers as grammar schools and imperial measurements that followed the Prime Minister’s poor performance in the vote of confidence three weeks ago, when 148 of his MPs rejected him. Economic management especially annoys the core vote. Pandemic or not, the Conservatives were elected to cut taxes and the size of the State, and have failed.

The business community, whose support for the Tories is crucial, resents the planned rise in corporation tax from 19 to 25 per cent. In a re-run of the Heath era in the 1970s, the government blames the steep rise in inflation on the unions – which, however wrong-headed the current waves of industrial action are, are not responsible for printing money and expanding the money supply. The Government is, and, as in the 1970s when Heath also debauched the currency, it remains the root cause of inflation. Public spending is, simply, still too high; if the economy is to recover the unproductive sectors of the economy must be cut, and the money they currently swallow redirected to the productive sectors. Genuine growth cannot be obtained otherwise, and many core Tory voters, particularly those who work in the private sector, know this.

What appeared a praiseworthy start to pandemic management in 2020 dissolved not just into law-breaking, but into accusations of the corrupt award of contracts for often-useless personal protective equipment, borrowing huge amounts of money to pay people to be unproductive, engaging in a level of state interference in the lives of individuals that, despite Covid’s dangers, many Conservatives found unacceptable and profligate. A public inquiry has been promised; there is no sign of it starting, creating suspicion that ministers wish to evade accountability for their conduct of the crisis for as long as possible. In many other areas there is rhetoric rather than action, and drift rather than genuine determination.

By his principled resignation – albeit perhaps too late - Mr Dowden has shown character, and probably guaranteed his long-term front bench career under a new leader. If his party is to retain power, others must do the same.

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