Orange brigade are coming to town
Bright orange triangle signs are popping up in house fronts. The empty shop has been taken over. Bar charts of dubious veracity are adorning leaflets. The ‘super local’ candidate is in place. Potholes are being mentioned. We know what this means… The Lib Dems smell a by-election upset in classic Conservative Home County territory of Amersham and Chesham this month, following a strong local elections showing a few weeks ago. Some hubris and campaign tactics for sure but the politics and communications here in the next few weeks may be indicative of whether the Tories can keep riding the old blue wall and the new blue wall together and ultimately whether we have a Conservative government for the next decade or not.
A portent for 2023/2024 General Election?
The by-election following the sad passing of well-respected and independent minded Cheryl Gillan (for whom many round here would rather the HS2 tunnel boring machines were called after her than Florence and Cecilia given her work to secure tunnelling under much of the Chilterns) on 17 June presents an important test for the Conservative English electoral coalition on which power in Westminster rests. Amidst much focus on the ‘Red Wall’, Hartlepool and the upcoming Batley and Spen by-election, a Buckinghamshire by election where blue majorities are measured in the 10,000s, is in many ways just as important as to the long term direction of the party, how it positions itself in its ‘heartlands’ and a pointer to the tensions which will be at the heart of the 2023/24 General Election. It also signals how the parliamentary party may behave for the rest of this Parliament, especially on contentious issues around infrastructure, planning, the environment and law and order.
How do Tories narrate southern incumbency against northern insurgency?
Simply put, this government relies on England and the unseasy coalition of Northern towns, Southern suburbs and the rural rest. The Southern element has received less attention as of late and there are signs of some Tory retreat in such places. Many traditional Conservatives are deeply uncomfortable with the current big state, English nationalism. But without the classic southern seats, the Party risks its own coalition splintering which is so badly afflicting Labour in reverse right now. Seats can fall not to just Lib Dems but also become highly fractured and let Labour in as well much like New Labour successfully captured much of southern England. These Conservative heartland areas are changing both demographically and issues wise – HS2 has frustrated people here but is grudgingly accepted now (the battle is on mitigation not construction), Brexit (the area was 55:45 in favour of Remain but changing demographics as professional classes increasingly move out from SW postcodes to the area are extending that lead) and the biggest fear is on house building on the Green Belt. That requires slightly different politics for a new electorate in new times.
What is the campaign formula so far?
Even if Amersham does stay blue, the portents for the Wycombes, Guildfords, Wokings and Harlows with much slimmer majorities of this world look less rosy. Incumbency (both in terms of MPs and in running the Councils) requires a new narrative that has not been addressed post Brexit. St Alban’s as a seat in recent years is indicative. So what is the local campaign formula?
The ‘red wall campaign formula’ is in some ways fairly clear. A narrative of being let down by Labour over generations. Highly effective local candidates. Sometimes heavy use of Boris. A promise of maximum extraction from Westminster by independent minded people working with an interventionist government. It is transactional pork barrelled politics. Should this be translated now in the South?
To a certain extent it is being translated directly. The ‘strong local voice for our recovery’ narrative suggests effectively extractions from the Treasury. The candidate is talked up as local. All promise to continue the independence of Cheryl Gillan. Protecting and standing up for the area are writ large. But the party has never been particularly visible locally – it is a quiet and solid Tory area and the threat from the left requires a shift in campaign tactics.
Hence, in other ways, the formula has more radical divergence. Boris has not yet been mentioned given his perception differs across geographies and demographics. A large emphasis has been put on Peter Fleet’s business experience at Ford and on ‘Building Back Better’. That feels more classic Little Englander conservatism. The emphasis on protecting green spaces and the environment do suggest the Lib Dems are running some of the early narrative here. The Tories are counter-attacking on antisocial behaviour.
It remains to be seen as to whether this is an effective riding of two horses and if this sets a blueprint (pun intended…) for positioning in its southern bases into the next General Election.
There is a degree of time to run in this by-election. Much of the Lib Dem challenge will depend on whether there can be an anti-Tory coalition (the Greens and Labour are both running, suggesting not). There are many calls from the centre for the parties to create that alliance already. The Reform Party is a known unknown on whether that will split the centre-right, Brexit and libertarian vote at all, most of whom would have traditionally been ticking Cheryl’s name come polling day. Smart money is still on retaining the seat given the majority, the strength of the local party and a fractured opposition. But the result will have wider repercussions on the coming years of Home County big C Conservatism.
William Wallace is Deputy Managing Partner of Interel and lives in Amersham.