LONDON – In a surprising result, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative Party has been easily defeated in a special election for a seat that it has held for decades.
The Liberal Democrats, which was in a coalition government with the Conservatives between 2010 and 2015 before seeing its electoral fortunes wane dramatically, won Thursday's election in Chesham and Amersham, 35 miles (57 kilometers) northwest of London.
Sarah Green, the Liberal Democrat candidate, picked up around 57% of the vote and won a seat the Conservatives have held since it was created in 1974. She added around 30 percentage points to the party's result from the 2019 general election.
“This Conservative Party has taken people across the country for granted for far too long,” Green said Friday.
Her party leader, Ed Davey, said the result sent a “shockwave through British politics” by showing that the “blue wall” of Conservative seats in southern England could be vulnerable.
“There are many Conservatives across the country who are now worried,” said Davey, who celebrated by smashing a blue wall made up of cardboard boxes with an orange mallet.
Chesham and Amersham are quiet, leafy, prosperous towns that are synonymous with traditional Conservative territory, in much the same way that the post-industrial towns in northern England have identified with the opposition Labour Party.
The Conservatives have made big inroads into Labour's “red wall” in recent years, winning a swathe of seats on a combination of factors, notably Johnson’s insistence that he would ensure that Britain leaves the European Union after years of parliamentary haggling. Having secured that, Johnson has managed to capture more support in Labour's traditional heartland by promising to “level up” Britain through big infrastructure spending and other initiatives.
However, there are concerns among some Conservative supporters that the growing focus on northern seats has alienated the party's more traditional — and potentially more liberal — southern supporters. In the 2016 Brexit referendum, 55% of voters in Chesham and Amersham voted to remain in the EU, in sharp contrast to many of the constituencies the Conservatives have recently turned blue.
Johnson denied that he was neglecting the party's traditional base and said there were “particular circumstances” at play in Chesham and Amersham.
“We believe in uniting and leveling up within regions and across the country,” he said.
The reasons for the Conservatives' heavy defeat varied, though national issues such as the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic and its pro-Brexit stance clearly played a role.
"In remain-voting, middle-class seats in the south of England, the Conservative coalition has been weakened to some degree in the wake of Brexit, and the Liberal Democrats are the party that in many instances are best-placed to profit from that, and that's what they've managed to do in Chesham and Amersham," polling expert John Curtice told the BBC.
Local issues were also at play. Voters consistently voiced concerns about a high-speed rail line that will cut through the region and link London to the big cities in the north of England, such as Birmingham and Manchester.
“This is a beautiful place, but people are totally against what’s happening with the railway, and I think that’s what has driven this," said Jit Mistry, the owner of Chesham Post Office.
Planning reforms proposed by the government also have sparked fears about more buildings in the countryside.
The defeated candidate, Peter Fleet, acknowledged the Conservatives had to rebuild “trust and understanding” with voters.
Despite the election's outcome, Johnson can still rely on a big majority of around 80 seats in the the 650-member House of Commons.