The Liberal Democrats have said they can topple the Conservatives’ “blue wall” in the south of England after storming to victory in the Chesham and Amersham byelection, taking a seat that had been solidly Tory for almost 50 years.
In a result that exceeded even the expectations of party activists, the Lib Dems’ Sarah Green overturned a 16,000 Conservative majority to take the seat by just over 8,000 votes, a swing of 25%.
Boris Johnson conceded that the result in Chesham and Amersham was “disappointing” but rejected the idea it shows he is alienating voters in the south of England.
Amid significant tactical voting in the commuter belt seat north-west of London, Labour slumped from more than 7,000 votes in the 2019 election to just 622, with the Greens coming third.
Green, a marketing company owner and longtime Lib Dem activist, ended up with 21,517 votes, an almost 57% vote share. The Tory candidate, Peter Fleet, a former Ford executive who has spent most of the past 15 years based abroad, won 13,489 votes.
At a rally with Green at a community hall in Chesham, the Lib Dem leader, Ed Davey, told cheering activists that the byelection, prompted by the death of the longstanding Tory MP Cheryl Gillan, was a pivotal moment.
“Do you know what, I think there are many Conservative MPs across the country who are now worried,” Davey said.
“People have been talking about the red wall – I think that after Chesham and Amersham, they’ll be talking about the blue wall, and how the Liberal Democrats are the main threat to the Conservatives in huge swathes of the country.”
To reinforce the point in a very literal way, Davey stood for the TV cameras in front of an actual wall made of blue plastic bricks, and proceeded to knock it down with an orange mallet.
Davey said he believed that amid Johnson’s focus on so-called “red wall” seats, he had paid no attention to constituencies such as Chesham and Amersham, which has had a Tory MP since it was created in 1974.
He said: “I was really staggered by the number of people who said: ‘I’ve never had a politician knock on my door before.’ They said the Conservatives took them for granted, and now only seem to care about the north.”
There was, Davey said, “quite a bit of anti-Boris feeling” on doorsteps, and concern about the direction of the Conservatives under Johnson’s more populist and culture war-focused leadership.
“For them, the emperor has no clothes,” Davey said, “Those sorts of traditional, liberal Tories care about foreign aid, things like free school meals for poor kids, and worry about civil liberties. And they’re just being ignored.”
The Lib Dems devoted huge resources to the byelection, with Davey visiting 16 times. The Conservatives, in contrast, appeared to realise relatively late that they were in danger, upon which they sent out extra resources – including Theresa May, who spent Thursday trying to get Tory voters out.
“They panicked in the last week or so,” Davey said. “They worked out something was going on, but I don’t think they realised quite what. But to be honest, we didn’t know quite how big a surprise it was going to be.”
The Lib Dems fought a very local campaign, highlighting the local disruption from the HS2 rail project, and changes to planning laws, with Davey calling this the biggest issue raised “by far” among local voters.
Responding to the Lib Dem victory, Johnson told Sky News, during a visit to West Yorkshire, that there were “particular circumstances” at play in Thursday’s byelection, though he did not specify what they were.
He claimed it was “bizarre” to accuse him of being unpopular in the south, pointing to the fact he had won the London mayoral election twice, and highlighting gains for the Conservatives at last month’s local elections including in Basildon, Maidstone and Basingstoke.
“We are a great one nation party, and we will continue in our mission to unite and level up, because that is the best way to deliver jobs, prosperity, across the whole country,” he said.
The prime minister also defended his proposed planning changes, which some Conservative MPs are pressing him to drop, after the issue featured heavily in Chesham and Amersham.
Johnson said the plans had been “misrepresented” by the party’s opponents. “What we want is sensible plans to allow development on brownfield sites. We’re not going to build on greenbelt sites. We’re not going to build all over the countryside, but I do think that young people growing up in this country should have the chance of home ownership, and that’s what we’re focusing on.”
The policing and crime minister, Kit Malthouse, said on Friday the result was very disappointing and that there would be “significant post-match analysis” to discover what had gone wrong.
He denied, however, that the Tory party was ignoring its traditional home counties supporters in favour of creating a base in the north of England and said it was common for governments to lose byelections.
“It’s worth pointing out that only a month ago we had fantastic results across the home counties and local elections,” he told Sky News. “So there’s some complex things going on there which people need to understand and, no doubt, people at party headquarters will be focusing on the result and trying to understand how we can win Chesham and Amersham back at the next opportunity.”
Senior Conservative figures, including the party co-chair Amanda Milling, had visited Chesham and Amersham to canvass in recent days. Johnson also made a visit to the area to back Fleet earlier this month.