If you close your eyes and imagine an archetypal true blue Tory heartland, there is a good chance your mind’s eye will conjure up something close to the quaint Surrey town of Godalming. Boutique bakeries and inviting tea rooms dot the immaculate high street, still festooned with union flag bunting from its coronation celebrations.
Estate agents’ windows feature large detached houses with impossibly long drives. One has an indoor swimming pool. Narrow, cobbled streets sit below Tudor-period facades. At the bottom of its thriving main thoroughfare is the obligatory Waitrose. It comes as no surprise to discover the MP is, naturally, the chancellor of the exchequer, Jeremy Hunt.
Yet this seeming cliché of a Conservative fiefdom is under concerted electoral attack. The fortress of Godalming is being besieged. The nearby village greens of Bramley and Brook are in the crosshairs. The gravelled drives of Hascombe and Chiddingfold are no longer safe.Suddenly, no Tory stronghold in the area is deemed out of bounds.
“If you didn’t know any of the politics, you would probably assume this was a hardcore Tory place,” concedes Paul Follows, the beaming Liberal Democrat candidate, as he takes his latest tour of Godalming high street. “But almost all of these really clichéd Conservative places have not been so Conservative for a little while.”
Unlikely as it might once have seemed, Hunt’s South West Surrey constituency – in Tory hands since its formation in 1983 – has now become one of the bricks in the “blue wall” of affluent, pro-remain Tory constituencies that the Lib Dems believe they can dislodge.
That would put Hunt at risk of one of those humiliating election night oustings. Attention on Hunt will only grow after the most obvious candidate for electoral defeat, the former deputy prime minister Dominic Raab, announced that he would not contest his more marginal Surrey constituency of Esher and Walton at the next election.
Back in 2017, when Follows joined Godalming town council, he was the only non-Conservative on it. Now the Tories have just two of 20 seats. Over the same period, the number of Tories on the local Waverley borough council has dwindled from about 50 to 10 after the disastrous local election results last month. Follows says that the chaos of Boris Johnson’s leadership, followed by the full-scale implosion of Liz Truss’s tenure, have catalysed a longer-term decay in the foundations of this blue wall mainstay. Hunt’s 8,817-strong majority is large, but it is at risk should Rishi Sunak fail to reverse his party’s recent fortunes.
“The values of the people here have always been what they are now,” says Follows. “That’s pretty centrist, pretty moderate, very tolerant, pro-European, pretty compassionate and reasonable, very well educated. What they’ve seen is their party move to a really rightwing group. And it doesn’t matter how reasonable Jeremy [Hunt] can come across on occasion.”
It is not just campaigning Lib Dems who claim something significant could be brewing in these seats, and can be found across the home counties and the south-east of England. Many Conservatives are also concerned that in their party’s desperation to win swathes of traditionally Labour “red wall” seats in the Midlands and north, they have neglected these seats at the other end of its 2019 electoral coalition.
Its embrace of Brexit and culture war battles never played well among blue wall voters, they warn, but the threat of Jeremy Corbyn kept them within the Tory tent last time.
They argue that Keir Starmer provides less of a perceived threat, while rising mortgage costs and NHS problems now impinge on the lives of these voters.
According to a calculation by Oxford University’s Prof Ben Ansell, the South West Surrey seat would now fall into Lib Dem hands on national polling averages. To make matters more perilous for Hunt, the constituency is being redrawn, which could make it more marginal.
“It’s clear that these are kind of Sunak-sympathetic, Sunak-curious voters,” says Ansell. “A full Sunak approach, which was less ‘stop the boats’ and more ‘stop the culture war’, might work. The problem is it will lose other parts of the country. The electoral sheet leaves either the feet or the head uncovered.”
The talk among some Tories in parliament has become apocalyptic. “I’m more worried about the blue wall than anything,” one former cabinet minister said in the Observer recently. “I really think there’s a chance that what happened to Labour in Scotland in 2015 could happen to us in the blue wall at the next election. What are we offering these voters now?”
Others are less alarmist, but share much of the sentiment. “I do think we’ve been somewhat cavalier with what one might loosely call the home counties vote,” says Ed Vaizey, a longtime minister under David Cameron and now a Tory peer. “To a certain extent, we’ve risked what Labour experienced in Scotland and arguably in the north – just assuming those voters will continue to vote for us.
“I don’t necessarily think there’s a huge Liberal Democrat surge going to happen in the south-east, but I do think that mainstream Tory voters need to feel that they’ve got a government that cares about them.”
The problem emerging in affluent, liberal Tory seats comes with a parallel debate over tactics raging among Conservative MPs on the One Nation wing. Some want to take a “more muscular” stance with the right of the party. Others want to maintain a softer approach, cajoling Sunak and his team behind the scenes. They point out that while the blue wall may be wobbling, their wing of the party is better represented in the cabinet now than it has been for years.
Hunt himself is now chancellor. Just last year, he failed to secure sufficient support even to enter the leadership contest. Elsewhere, figures from the One Nation group of liberal Tory MPs – Gillian Keegan, Alex Chalk, Victoria Prentis and Tom Tugendhat – are now around the cabinet table.
While liberal Tories regard Sunak himself as on the right of the party (an “orthodox Thatcherite”, as one calls him), they also view him with relief, and credit him with restoring order and moderation – qualities they were desperate to see.
However, despite the recovery in terms of power within the government, some on the liberal wing say the party is suffering the delayed effects of declaring war on them during the years of Brexit infighting.
“A lot of the moderates were booted out,” points out one former minister. “People like Nicky Morgan, or David Gauke, or Rory Stewart. People who carry some real heft in the party are no longer frontline politicians.”
Gauke himself is not panicking about Tory prospects in the blue wall at the next election, but he does see longer-term problems looming.
“Obviously, the local election results were pretty terrible,” he says. “My view is that the blue wall is going to crumble, but it’s not going to collapse next year. The Conservative party’s got a real long-term problem in the home counties. Rishi Sunak is perfectly capable of appealing to blue wall seats, but he’s the leader of a party that people have seen over quite a long period of time heading in a particular direction. Those memories are not going to disappear quickly. There’s an element of ‘long Boris’ about it all.”
Given the turbulence since 2016 and the Tory party’s embrace of Brexit and an iconoclastic radicalism that ended in Truss breaking the record for the shortest-serving prime minister, it should come as no surprise that the small-c conservative home counties feel ruffled.
Even without the demographic changes and the cost of living issues, the government would be struggling. Lib Dem canvassers also report finding more Labour-voting young couples in Godalming who have moved out of London. They can then be targeted as potential tactical voters.
On top of all that, the liberal wing in parliament have also been warning about the fact that the stock of traditional Tory voters is not being replenished. A recent report co-authored by Bim Afolami, an MP in the similarly besieged blue wall seat of Hitchin and Harpenden, found that young voters who once turned to the Conservatives as they progressed in their careers are not making the same journey.
It found just 21% of 25 to 40-year- olds, or millennials, would vote for the Conservatives today. In the 2010 election, the Tories had been the most popular party among that age bracket. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher won among the under-30s. “Millennials are the first demographic cohort not to become more right wing as they age,” Afolami wrote. “They are failing to acquire many of the attributes that have traditionally moved voters rightwards: home ownership, secure and stable employment, starting families.”
Gauke has another nagging fear about a development that may put off younger voters even more. “I still think hanging over all of that is what is going to happen in the event of a Conservative defeat at the next general election, followed by a vacancy for the leadership and a party membership that is going to get its say.
“It seems implausible that the right wing won’t have at least one candidate that goes through to the membership and they’ve got a very good chance of winning it. So the medium-term prospects for the liberal part of the Conservative party is still very worrying.”
Back in Godalming, there is some Tory hope. One voter tells a Lib Dem canvasser that he will “stay loyal” to the Tories, whatever the problems besetting the country at the next election. But there are plenty of warning signs, too. Debbie and John, an articulate couple looking after their grandson, are scathing about the childcare and mortgage costs their daughter faces in the town. “There’s no affordable alternative here,” says Debbie. John points out that Sunak opted to retain Suella Braverman, one of the right’s probable next leadership candidates, as his home secretary.
Elsewhere in the town, John Payne, a retired insurer, said he would be voting tactically in the seat to remove “the worst government in my lifetime”.
It is no wonder then that, with 18 months at most until the next election, liberal Tories are willing to speak up. Damian Green, the chairman of the One Nation caucus of Tory MPs, urged Sunak to ensure the cricket pavilions and village fetes of the home counties are kept in mind as he battles to rescue the party’s fortunes.
“Keeping voters in the blue wall with us is about showing that the Conservative party is not populist,” he says. “It is realistic. It has got an economic policy that will bring inflation down and, therefore, make mortgages more affordable long term. But at the same time, it is showing that it has an attitude to the world which is optimistic and outward-looking, providing opportunity for people.
“These are the things that the Tory party needs to be saying if it is to keep that appeal. If we appear to be sour and old-fashioned and pessimistic, then those sorts of voters will be turned off.”