The by-elections seen in Hartlepool and Chesham and Amersham are indicative of a permanent realignment of British politics that spells both trouble and fortune for today’s Conservative Party. We often hear from political commentators about Labour’s disconnect with the working class in their traditional heartlands, with Starmer’s Labour Party treating the issue as something that can be reconciled right away with a fresh face and some contrived flag-waving. Yet voters in Hartlepool connecting with Boris Johnson’s big state Brexit party is only one side of the story, the long-term realignment that is beginning to solidify has been manifesting itself in another way that will hurt the Conservatives. Party activists and MPs can hail victories in the Northeast and the Midlands all they like, but the reality of the Liberal Democrats’ win in Chesham and Amersham has not dawned quite yet.
Reactions on social media and elsewhere have shrugged off the result as a flash in the pan victory, dictated by local issues and the traditional by-election effect taking hold. Instead, this is just as much of a realignment as we are seeing in the Red Wall. Contrary to popular belief, the south has been moving away from the Conservatives for quite some time. In the 2019 General Election, the conditions were perfect for a Liberal Democrat surge based on a reaction against Brexit and all the Tory Party had now become. But the conditions changed, Jeremy Corbyn was seen as more and more of a threat thus voting anything but Conservative to voters, who are very much not of the socialist persuasion, was a danger. And so, like usual, the traditional seats stayed in the party’s graces. Nothing changed though, the Brexit realignment was still there under the surface and in fact worsened.
Boris Johnson, by sticking to the Brexit rhetoric, cutting foreign aid, continuing to spend like mad and attempting to appeal more to the party’s new blue-collar base, has alienated the type of Conservative voter that held up the Blue Wall, with this core base only becoming more disillusioned. When the local elections hit, the Lib Dems hoovered up Tory seats just as we scooped up Labour’s. Chesham is not some one-off, it’s the beginning of the Blue Wall collapse (although a wall may be a flexible definition in this case). Yes, the Liberal Democrats violated their own pro-development principles to win, but they could easily replicate the same clever strategy across all the leafy seats the party could once count on for their support.
Boris Johnson faces a choice. Does he go back on the promises of more home-building and risk hurting the party into the long-term as house prices soar, or does he plough ahead with the big developments the Government wants to see? Consoling two opposite voting pools is a challenge that may prove too difficult for the party to surmount, and is about something more fundamental than local issues. Either way, to write off Chesham as a one-off is a failure to understand the electoral peril the party may face. Yes Labour are flagging, but new challengers are here and they have this garish orange hue about them.