Ministers Warn Johnson of Tory Revolt After U.K. Election Shock
(Bloomberg) -- Boris Johnson is facing a backlash from his own Conservative colleagues, who blame the prime minister’s focus on chasing votes in northern England for putting the ruling party’s traditional southern power base at risk.
A shock defeat in Thursday’s special vote in a wealthy district northwest of London has played into the hands of disgruntled Tories, who fear the direction of the party under Johnson -- especially plans to ramp up housebuilding in all areas -- threatens their chances of re-election.
Speaking privately, two ministers suggested the dramatic loss could force the government to water down its flagship construction policy reforms. Two more said Johnson must now rethink his core focus on “leveling up” economically neglected parts of northern England so voters in the south do not feel left out.
On Friday, Johnson tried to play down the significance of the result in Chesham and Amersham, which had been held by the Tories since 1974, describing it as “a bit peculiar, a bit bizarre.” He insisted he isn’t neglecting southern England, and pointed out that he personally had won the mayoralty of London twice.
Yet it is the Tory unease over Johnson’s courtship of Brexit-voting former Labour heartlands in the north, with a policy to “level up” opportunities and investment, that is giving Johnson’s team pause for thought.
That strategy helped Johnson win a huge general election victory in 2019 and persuaded many former Labour voters in northern England to back him again at last month’s local council contests. It is a policy that’s central to his vision for the U.K.’s post-Brexit, post-pandemic recovery but requires his party’s support to be delivered.
WhatsApp groups of Conservative MPs were ablaze with unrest over the result in Chesham and Amersham on Friday, according to Johnson’s party colleagues, who requested anonymity to discuss the issue.
So-called by-elections are known for throwing up quirky results in the U.K., while issues specific to the district including an unpopular high-speed rail link featured heavily during campaigning in the district.
A rebellion was already brewing among senior Conservatives over the government’s proposed overhaul of planning rules, aimed at accelerating the construction of 300,000 homes. Tory critics said the policy would lead to the concreting over parts of southern England and rural constituencies -- rather than triggering a building boom in the north.
In response to the backlash, the government abandoned an algorithm meant to assign areas for construction. But what form the Planning Bill eventually takes is still worrying Tory MPs.
“If the laws are based on the proposals, I fear this is less about modernization than about giving developers greater freedom,” former Prime Minister Theresa May, Johnson’s immediate predecessor, told the House of Commons last month.
On a broader level, some Tories are worried to what extent “leveling up” -- with it’s clear benefits to areas deprived of investment in the past -- is now alienating voters in southern England. The open question is how many other seats are now at risk to the Liberal Democrats, who can also leverage their opposition to Brexit to attract voters in Tory-held areas.
While voter swings in by-elections don’t tend to translate into national politics when general elections are called, the magnitude of Thursday’s shift is clearly of concern to the ruling party. In 2019, 55% of electors in Chesham and Amersham voted Tory. This week, 57% voted Liberal Democrat.
One government official said the Liberal Democrats are very active in their district, and Johnson needs to remember the Conservatives are a southern party. Another Tory said there is a growing fear that the core base of Tory support in England could be fracturing.
A third warned of the dangers of exposing the party’s southern flank while focusing on the north, and pointed to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s seat in London’s commuter belt as an example of one that could be at risk: in 2019, his majority shrank by more than 20,000 votes amid a Lib Dem surge.
For Johnson, the result is a rare but significant blip on his record as an election winner who led his party to its biggest majority in Parliament since Margaret Thatcher was leader. On Friday, he pushed back at the idea his policies are hurting the party in seats like Chesham and Amersham.
“There were particular circumstances there and we are getting on with delivering our agenda for the whole country, that’s what one nation Conservatism is all about,” Johnson told reporters. “We believe in uniting and leveling up within regions and across the country.”
Campaigning in the Chesham and Amersham election, which was called following the death of the MP who held the seat, Liberal Democrat strategists sought to make headway over the Tories’ planning proposals as well as HS2 High-Speed rail project, which cuts through the constituency.
The challenge facing them is how to maintain momentum elsewhere. The party won just 11 seats in the 2019 general election, with 11.6% of the national vote.
But their share of the vote was 18.2% in both the southeast and southwest of England, and 14.9% in London, according to the House of Commons Library. They came second to the Tories in 80 seats. In last month’s local elections, they made gains in other southern districts including Oxfordshire and Hertfordshire.
“The people of Chesham and Amersham have sent a shock wave through British politics,” Lib Dem Leader Ed Davey said. “We were told this seat was too safe and the Tories too strong. This Liberal Democrat win has proved them utterly wrong.”
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