Boris Johnson’s Conservative party has lost one of its safest seats in England in an extraordinary by-election victory for the Liberal Democrats.
Sarah Green, the Lib Dem candidate, secured 21,517 votes in Chesham and Amersham, giving her a solid majority of 8,028 over Tory candidate Peter Fleet with 13,489 votes.
The contest in the ruling Conservative party’s former stronghold in an affluent part of Buckinghamshire was prompted by the death of Cheryl Gillan, an ex-cabinet minister who held the seat with a majority of 16,223.
The result came as the Conservatives sit at about 44 per cent in the national polls — boosted by a successful Covid-19 vaccination campaign — and the Lib Dems at about 7 per cent.
But there were stirrings of change in May’s local elections, when the Lib Dems went from zero seats in Amersham to controlling the town council and made gains elsewhere in southern England.
The Lib Dem victory will cause nervousness within the Tory party that its heavy emphasis on “levelling up” — channelling more funding to low-income northern seats — is prompting resentment in some parts of the south.
The Tories have made gains in the Midlands and northern England, with their backing for Brexit and promise to redistribute money away from the south-east helping them take scores of former Labour party seats in the so-called “red wall”.
Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, said the result had sent a “shockwave” through British politics. “The Tory blue wall is beginning to crumble,” he said.
One Lib Dem aide said: “I do think that the Conservatives are going to have to think very carefully about how they continue to ride these two horses of both the red wall and the blue wall.”
Southern Conservatives are concerned that prime minister Johnson’s planning reforms, which risks opening up protected land, will allow the Lib Dems to set themselves up as protectors of the greenbelt. One seasoned Tory activist described the result as “no surprise”, adding “planning is going to screw us”.
The aide added that local voters had seen the heavy media coverage of the recent Hartlepool by-election, where the Conservatives seized one of the most deprived towns in England from Labour. “They noticed that hardly anyone was covering Amersham, because no one ever thought it could change hands. That taking voters for granted was a massive mistake,” the person said.
Davey made 16 visits to the south Buckinghamshire seat during the campaign, focusing on issues including planning. Many voters in southern England are unhappy with government plans to force through the development of large numbers of new houses through new legislation.
There is also widespread local opposition to HS2, the new rail line which passes through the constituency. Both the Conservatives and Lib Dems support the project.
The Tories sent senior figures including Johnson, chancellor Rishi Sunak and party co-chair Amanda Milling to the seat to campaign in recent days.
The result represents a 25 per cent swing away from the Tories and takes the Lib Dems to 12 seats in the House of Commons. It will raise morale in a party that has struggled in recent years.
The Lib Dems reached an electoral high in the 2005 election with 62 seats. In the 2010 general election they returned 57 MPs and agreed to share power with the Conservatives in a five-year coalition. But this damaged their popularity and reduced them to a small rump in the House of Commons.
The Conservatives sent out a leaflet about a week ago to voters in the constituency warning that the Lib Dems could win. “The biggest problem we have is that even people who like us think we can never win. That leaflet made people think it was worth voting for us after all,” the Lib Dem party aide said.
The Tory campaign was described as “remarkably bad” by one party activist in the constituency. “Not just complacent and far too slow to spot the threat,” the person said.
The Green candidate Carolyne Culver received 1,480 votes. Natasa Pantelic of the Labour party got 622, down from the party’s 7,166 votes in 2019, suggesting that there was a large degree of tactical voting. The turnout was 52 per cent.