It was the morning after the night before. The Liberal Democrats had just won the Chesham and Amersham June by-election in a shock swing and party leader Ed Davey headed down from his hotel room for a victory breakfast. He was staying in Amersham, the hilly Buckinghamshire market town at the end of the Metropolitan line. When the hotel’s waiter saw Davey, he lit up and brought out a complimentary glass of champagne. The waiter, who lives in what had been a safe Conservative seat since 1974, told Davey he had voted for the Lib Dem candidate Sarah Green because he felt like the Tories were taking his vote for granted.
In the early hours of the morning when the results were announced, Davey had stood in front of a wall made of Tory blue plastic bricks and knocked it down with a Lib Dem orange mallet. ‘You know what happens when a really powerful orange force goes against a blue wall?’ he said to the weary but triumphant group of Lib Dems before taking aim. ‘Let me show you.’
The election victory was a twist that no one expected, least of all the Lib Dems. ‘We were stunned at the result,’ says a senior party member, who is not used to the Lib Dems being popular. ‘It is a shift in how we feel about ourselves.’ The Financial Times’s chief political correspondent, Jim Pickard, who’d said he would eat his hat if the Lib Dems won, and duly cut up a bucket hat with scissors.
For Layla Moran, 38-year-old Lib Dem MP for Oxford West, her party’s rising popularity is ‘about decency in politics’. Moran is a pansexual, half-Palestinian millennial whose House of Commons speech on the situation in the Middle East went viral on YouTube in May. ‘Voters chose to stand up for a greener, fairer and more caring future by backing the Liberal Democrats. It also has major implications for the London halo [the Lib Dem support in the capital and the South East] and the Blue Wall [in the Home Counties], which is beginning to crumble. Voters in those seats are making it clear that they won’t be taken for granted by the Conservatives any more. A shake-up of our electoral map is under way across our region.’
The party that for so long was synonymous with its former leader Nick Clegg, and his backtracking on his promise not to raise tuition fees in 2010, is beginning to look like it is on the cusp of a new era. ‘Finally, perhaps, we have an answer to the question, “What is the point of the Lib Dems?’’,’ jokes a former adviser to a Lib Dem MP.
Chesham and Amersham’s new MP Sarah Green’s win is symbolic. It shows that the Tory seats in the Home Counties are no longer safe, that Boris Johnson is not unassailable and that the Lib Dems are a party that can win elections. And if they can win in Chesham and Amersham, maybe voters in Labour-supporting London will no longer think going Lib Dem is a wasted vote.
The Conservatives are certainly taking note. Many in the upper echelons of Tory HQ think Chesham and Amersham is evidence that the Conservatives have made a tactical error in focusing so much on winning Red Wall seats — areas in the North that have historically voted Labour — especially if it comes at the expense of previously loyal Conservative support in wealthy southern seats. Places like Chesham and Amersham began to doubt the Tories after Brexit (many people there voted Remain and are unconvinced by Boris Johnson’s Brexit policy) and the Tories did nothing to retain their support. Davey says that many people in that constituency felt taken for granted: ‘When I campaigned there, I was astonished at how many times I was greeted with the same refrain, “Wow, you’re the first politician I’ve ever had knocking at my door and wanting to talk.’’’
Meanwhile, Labour is watching anxiously, too — they should be the ones making the Tories squirm, not the Lib Dems. The critical question for them is whether Labour-voting London might start to go yellow? At the moment it seems far-fetched — Labour holds 49 seats in London, the Tories 21 and the Lib Dems three — but with Jeremy Corbyn gone, more Londoners feel safer voting Lib Dem. Patrick English, who works on polling at YouGov, explains: ‘In 2019 a lot of soft Tory voters who could have drifted towards the Liberal Democrats went for the Conservatives because they thought that was a safer way to ensure Corbyn didn’t win. Now, they may not actively like Keir Starmer but they don’t actively dislike him in the way they did Corbyn, so will feel safe to take a risk in voting Lib Dem because it won’t be a disaster if that helps Starmer.’
Of course by-elections are not a sure-fire indicator of general election success. The latest YouGov voting intention figures put the Lib Dems at nine per cent of the votes, just ahead of the Greens who have seven per cent. ‘I am hesitant to say they are on their way back,’ says English. ‘But a new type of voter has emerged who likes the look of the Lib Dems. Forget Sheffield Hallam, Nick Clegg’s old seat, which went Labour in 2019. If the Lib Dems can win in the South East they could be in a good place.’ The general election is still a long way off, not until May 2024, but Lib Dem insiders are clinging to the fact that they came second to the Tories in 80 seats in 2019, so now there is no route to getting Boris Johnson out of No 10 without them taking some of those seats.
This is certainly the most pro-active the Lib Dems have felt since the coalition government ended in 2015. When I went to the Lib Dem Party Conference in 2018 they lacked ambition. A woman told me, ‘We have to redefine success — it doesn’t have to be winning elections, it can be saving a local post office’, and others said they couldn’t face going to a session on fighting the Tories because ‘it sounds so wearing’. They enjoyed a moment in the sun ahead of the 2016 Brexit vote and in its the aftermath, when they stood firmly against leaving the EU, and then as Labour lurched further left, with former Labour MPs Luciana Berger and Chuka Umunna defecting to the Lib Dems. But the 2019 election result suggested they had not done enough to ensure support. They only won 11.5 per cent of the votes. A former Labour Party member who recently joined the Lib Dems says 2019 showed that ‘opposing Brexit isn’t enough any more; we have to work out what we stand for.’
‘My listeners view the Lib Dems the same way they do the G spot: quite difficult to find but fun if you get there,’ says Nick Ferrari, host of LBC’s breakfast show. ‘When Lib Dem MPs come on the show they are usually warm and well-received, but my listeners would say there is a lack of game-changing policy and that is what grabs people’s attention. Boris Johnson says things like he is going to fix social care or get Brexit done. Whether he has is another matter but people like an idea to hang their hat on.’
The Conservatives spun their defeat in Chesham and Amersham as being about planning — the Lib Dems opposed the controversial HS2 train line that will run through the area, plus a new housing development. But Davey thinks it was more about ‘a deep-seated unease among lifelong Tory voters about Boris Johnson — people feel he does not share their own liberal values like fairness and honesty’.
My listeners view the Lib Dems the same way they do the G spot: quite difficult to find but fun if you get there
The Liberal Democrats joke that because the party is so small it is easier to be united. Nevertheless, Chesham and Amersham highlighted some disagreement about values at the centre of the party. Some younger supporters such as Freddie Poser, 21, and former chair of Cambridge University Liberals, couldn’t support their housing policy there. The Lib Dems opposed new development when Poser says they need to support solutions to the housing crisis. The students Poser meets are no longer concerned about tuition fees, they have accepted that there is nothing they can do about that. He says: ‘Young people realise that the biggest issues holding them back are the lack of housing and the UK government’s preference for pensioners. The Lib Dems need to work out if they want to stand up for young people or if it will simply become the party of rich, southern home owners.’
Davey is aware that he needs to become better known and hopes that as lockdown restrictions ease this will be easier because he can get out and about and meet voters. He is ‘a good bloke’, says Ferrari. ‘He is well-meaning and works hard but so does the man who fixes my dishwasher. I wouldn’t vote for him to be PM.’
How much of a threat are the Greens? Most in the party expect a ‘pact of non-aggression with them’. There is an understanding of realpolitik that it is mutually beneficial for them and the Lib Dems to focus on winning in different areas. Tactically there is also an argument that it is in the Labour Party’s interests for the Lib Dems to do well — it all amounts to fewer seats for the Conservatives. Yet the former Labour Party member I speak to says, ‘Labour think they are so much bigger and better than they are, so they won’t want a non-aggression pact.’ And that the point of the Lib Dems is to be part of a sensible opposition to the Tories: ‘The Conservatives have such a majority so to beat them there has to be some sort of progressive alliance. That may not necessarily mean as a coalition government, everyone on all sides was scarred by that, but perhaps with some sort of informal agreement.’
Davey is more ambitious and forecasts a shake-up of the electoral map with the Lib Dems at the centre. ‘We have sent shockwaves through British politics and stunned much of the Westminster bubble who thought the Tories couldn’t be beaten,’ he says. In the capital, Lib Dems Caroline Pidgeon and Hina Bokhari have been elected to the London Assembly and are putting pressure on Sadiq Khan. ‘People are seeing that the Lib Dems offer something positive to vote for,’ continues Davey. ‘People heard our message for a fairer, greener and more caring country.’ Regardless of what happens down the line, politicians across all parties are paying attention.