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Change course or risk Lib Dems becoming ‘natural party for home counties’, senior Tories warn Boris Johnson

·4-min read
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Senior Tories say Boris Johnson must change course or face more defeats in southern seats, with a warning the Liberal Democrats could become the “natural party for the home counties”.

Former Cabinet ministers are among worried Conservatives calling on the prime minister to accept the danger that his “blue wall” will crumble – in a “mirror image” of Labour’s plight in the north.

They spoke out after a defiant prime minister defended his planning shake-up – despite it being blamed for the crushing Chesham and Amersham by-election defeat – claiming it had been misunderstood.

Damian Green and David Davis told The Independent the controversial changes, attacked for allowing developers to ride roughshod over local democracy, must be rethought.

But other Tories pointed to a deeper problem of a government that proclaimed itself as “One Nation”, but whose “actions don’t match its words”, as ex-health minister Stephen Hammond put it.

“The Conservatives need to prove they are not guilty of the charge laid against Labour of complacency and taking communities for granted,” Mr Hammond said.

Meanwhile, David Gauke, exiled from the Conservatives over Brexit, suggested “30 or 40 seats in the south of England” were vulnerable to the Lib Dems, warning: “Then the political map does begin to change.

“If they can make the case that they are the natural party for the home counties, that they can represent pro-business, centre right voters, then there’s an opportunity for the Liberal Democrats that they could take,” the ex-justice secretary said.

There are 23 Tory seats which the Lib Dems would snatch on a 10 per cent swing – less than half that achieved in Chesham and Amersham – one recent analysis found. The Lib Dems have overturned a large Tory majority to win the Chesham and Amersham by-election, claiming a seat that had been a Conservative stronghold for decades.

The result sees Lib Dem Sarah Green become the country’s newest MP, taking 56.7 per cent of the vote to secure a majority of 8,028 over the second-placed Tories.

The Lib Dem victory “sends a shockwave through British politics”, said the party’s leader Ed Davey, exposing the potential fragility of Mr Johnson’s party in the “blue wall” of southern England.

The contest was triggered by the death of former minister Dame Cheryl Gillan, who won in Chesham and Amersham with a majority of 16,233 in the last general election in 2019.

They include the Surrey constituencies of foreign secretary Dominic Raab and his predecessor Jeremy Hunt’s, as well as Mr Hammond’s Wimbledon seat.

Mr Green, Theresa May’s de-facto deputy prime minister, said, of the shock result: “In many ways it’s an old-fashioned by-election protest, but we have to hear the obvious message about planning and over-development.”

And Mr Davis, the former Brexit Secretary, said: “Governments should always pay careful attention to by-election setbacks, even ones dominated by tactical voting and Liberal tricks.

“The Chesham result implies that we should think hard about both HS2 and our prospective planning policy.”

Former cabinet minister Theresa Villiers, writing in the Telegraph, also urged ministers to “rethink their approach to planning reform” saying the current housing targets in the south east of England were “very high”.

Gavin Barwell, Mrs May’s former chief-of-staff, said the by-election result in true-blue Buckinghamshire was a “mirror image” of Labour’s defeat in Hartlepool last month.

“If you could replicate that at a general election, there will be other Conservative MPs in the southeast of England who will be quite worried about that,” he predicted.

The criticism comes after Andrew Mitchell, another former cabinet minister, warned of defeat unless the Conservatives remained “a broad church”, as he attacked the overseas aid cuts.

But, speaking on a college visit, Mr Johnson rejected warnings of trouble in the south, calling them “a bit peculiar, a bit bizarre” and pointing to local election gains “all over the place” last month.

He appeared to point to the construction of the HS2 high-speed rail line as the reason for the shock defeat, referring to “particular circumstances there”.

And, on planning, the prime minister said: “I think there’s some misunderstanding about the planning reforms – even some wilful misunderstanding on the part of some of our 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.”

In an article for The Independent, Mr Davey wrote: “The pundits said it was impossible for any party to beat the Conservatives in Buckinghamshire.

“Our resounding victory demonstrates the discontent, the frustration and the anger that so many people – even many who have voted Conservative all their lives – feel towards Boris Johnson.”

But Mr Hammond told The Independent: “The government says and wants to be One Nation, but its actions don’t match its words.”

Hinting at southern voters feeling neglected in the push to win the north, he added: “If levelling up is good for north then it is good for Buckinghamshire and London.”

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