It may only have been a blip on the political landscape rather than a full blown earthquake. But the Tories’ shock defeat in Chesham and Amersham begs serious questions about the party’s priorities.
Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) clearly thought the leafy Buckinghamshire constituency was in the bag and the real fight was for Batley and Spen – only to be outgunned on home turf.
Little wonder, then, that home counties MPs are growing increasingly concerned about complacency amid fears that the intense focus on the Red Wall has lost sight of the issues facing those in more traditional heartlands.
Although undoubtedly a protest vote against HS2, which has already caused major disruption across that part of the Chilterns, Thursday’s shock win for the Lib Dems also seemed to signify a two-fingered salute at the Government’s proposed planning reforms.
Yet, the problem for Boris Johnson is that it isn’t only the blue rinsers who appear concerned the Conservatives are about to concrete over the countryside as part of the “levelling up” agenda.
New-found former Labour comrades in the Midlands and the North are similarly put off by the idea of having their gas boilers ripped out and petrol cars cancelled as part of the Prime Minister’s zero emissions appeal to the progressives.
As the Tories basked in the glory of winning the Hartlepool by-election in May, the late Dame Cheryl Gillan’s seat appears to have been left woefully undefended.
Busily parking their tanks on Labour’s front lawn, the Conservatives ignored the threat from the Lib Dems bringing up the rear through the leafy back gardens of the Tory shires.
According to one well-placed source, party chiefs thought they had the ballot “in the bag” until only very recently, when the Lib Dems’s relentless ground campaign suddenly appeared to be landing significant gains.
'I don't think the Tories stood a chance'
“The Libs were out to make a killing from the very beginning,” said Carroll Morris, 62, whose long-standing ironmonger’s is next door to the Conservative constituency office in Amersham and two doors down from the carpet shop the Lib Dems turned into its orange-emblazoned command post.
“The Tories never really stood a chance,” she added. The Lib Dems set up shop immediately after the by-election was called in April and brought in all their minions by train. They had activists coming in from all over the place.
“The leaflet drops were like nothing I have ever seen before. I got one from the Lib Dems at 6pm on Wednesday night and then again at 6am on Thursday morning. The Conservatives weren’t only less visible, they started campaigning far too late.”
Paul Taylor, 50, who also works at the ironmongers, which has been a feature of the town centre for 34 years, was called by the Conservatives on his mobile as late as 7.30pm on Thursday night: when the polls were nearly closing. He had already been called by someone else at 6pm.
“I was all quite desperate. I wondered how the hell they had got my mobile number.”
Meanwhile, the Lib Dems were also blitzing the phones, apparently making three calls to the same constituent on Thursday evening.
Amid suggestions Tory HQ didn’t even bother to carry out any local polling in advance of the vote, party chairman Amanda Milling’s competence has been called into question.
'Lib Dems threw the kitchen sink at this constituency'
Tory candidate Peter Fleet appeared to suggest his campaign was under resourced when he said on Friday that the Lib Dems: "Didn’t just throw the kitchen sink at this constituency, I think it was the microwave, the table, the oven, the dishwasher, the dog, the cat and anything else that was lying around."
A Tory spokesman insisted that the same amount is spent on every by-election, regardless of geography, pointing out that Mr Johnson, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, had all paid the patch a visit.
Yet tactically, the Tories were clearly found wanting.
They allowed the Lib Dems to make huge capital out of HS2, even though the party supported the multi-billion rail project in its 2019 manifesto. And they appear to have done little to counteract the nimbyist narrative either.
As a Tory source directly involved in the campaign admitted: “The Government has said that the focus will be on development of brownfield land: the Chilterns isn’t going to be concreted over but that is what the Lib Dems claimed on the doorstep.”
According to one grassroots activist, the Conservative campaign would have been better off relying more on leaflets than the door knocks that make a difference north of the M25.
“The Tories spent too much time worrying about knocking on doors when actually leafleting would have got across to people more. Because of where the constituency is, it’s commuter belt, the people there are quite intellectual, they care about local issues, and they’d have read all the literature.”
Tory association 'old fashioned and set in its ways'
Another source suggested that the “old fashioned” local Tory association is “a bit set in its ways” and “rejected CCHQ interference”.
A neighbouring Tory MP made the point that the absence of Dame Cheryl Gillan, a hugely popular and campaigning MP, also played a big part.
“We would have really had to take this seriously from the off to defeat this scale of public insurrection. Our voters could be loyal to Cheryl knowing she was standing up for them, pressing for the Chilterns to be a national park, successfully mitigating HS2.
"She was undoubtedly their champion but in the absence of Cheryl to stick up for them, they just protested and you can’t blame them, really.”
Brexit could have also been a factor in a constituency that voted 55 per cent remain, regardless of Dominic Cummings’s Twitter thread on Friday suggesting he could have predicted the result.
The MP added: “We already had a Brexity problem with those voters and Boris has doubled down on it to become even more Brexity. It’s not so much a North/South problem than a problem with the Tories not being radically moderate enough.”