This week marks the fifth anniversary of the 2016 referendum in which Britain voted to leave the European Union – a decision that, after two intervening elections and the demise of two prime ministers, was eventually implemented in January 2020. Its political ramifications are still being worked out, a process that will no doubt continue for some time.
Superficially, as could easily be predicted at the time, Brexit has been good for the Conservative Party. The issue that had divided it for many years has been settled, the menace of UKIP on its right flank has been eliminated and the opposition Labour Party has been wrong-footed. Even if life outside the EU turns out to be significantly less rosy that the Brexiters claimed, the Conservatives have the plausible defence of saying that they were just democratically abiding by the voters’ decision.
Opinion polls aren’t a lot of use in the first half of a government’s term, but for what it’s worth they show Boris Johnson and the Conservatives travelling pretty well. After a period late last year and early this year when Labour was running neck and neck with them, they have recently drawn away again and are holding something not far off the eleven point lead they had at the 2019 election. And last month, to much media fanfare, they seized a traditional working-class seat, Hartlepool, from Labour in a by-election.
Last week, however, as if to deliberately upset that narrative, came another by-election with a very different result. Chesham & Amersham, in Buckinghamshire on the outskirts of London, had been held by the Tories ever since its creation in 1974. But on the death of Cheryl Gillan, who had been its MP for almost thirty years, the Liberal Democrats won the seat comfortably, with the Conservative vote dropping by almost twenty points.
The Lib Dems more than doubled their vote, jumping from 26.3% to 56.7%. Some of that was tactical voting: Labour, already a poor third in 2019 with 12.9%, dropped to just 1.6% as almost all of its voters seized on the chance to beat the Tories. But the big shift was from Conservatives to Lib Dems, giving new MP Sarah Green a margin of just over 8,000 votes.
I suggested at the time that Hartlepool’s intrinsic significance was “negligible”, and much the same can be said for Chesham & Amersham. But maybe not quite the same, since a minor party naturally has a bit less data to go on, and by-elections have played a correspondingly large part in the Lib Dems’ history. On a number of occasions they have been taken to herald a major change in the party’s fortunes, and pundits are playing the same game this time.
Way back in 1962 it was the Orpington by-election that set the Liberals (as they then were) on the road to recovery – at the time they held only six seats in the House of Commons and their national vote was mired in the single digits. But the recovery always seemed to stall just when it was about to pay real dividends: in the 1970s under Jeremy Thorpe, in the 1980s in alliance with the Social Democrats, and in the 1990s (now as the Liberal Democrats) under Paddy Ashdown.
Each time the party managed real gains but fell short of a breakthrough. In 2005, when Charles Kennedy led it to a general election result of 22.0% and 62 seats (a then record for modern times), I said that “If this is not the breakthrough result for them, it’s a pretty good imitation of it.” But imitations aren’t enough. And five years later, when under Nick Clegg the party gained a further percentage point (but lost five seats), it entered government in coalition with the Conservatives but was unable to secure the adoption of proportional representation.
The coalition hurt the Lib Dems badly. Another by-election win, in Eastleigh in 2013, provided brief grounds for optimism, but from there it was all downhill. At the Rochester & Strood by-election the following year, for example, their vote fell from a solid 16.3% to a derisory 0.9%, only half a point ahead of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party. At the 2015 general election the party lost almost two-thirds of its vote and 49 of its 57 seats.
Since then it has mostly been treading water. Current leader Ed Davey is its fourth since Clegg’s resignation; it is consistently polling in the high single digits (having managed 11.6% at the 2019 general election). Most of the time, it looks as if the national conversation has passed it by.
So Chesham & Amersham could be just another fleeting moment that leads to nothing much. On the other hand, it at least shows that better things are possible. And if realignment continues, and Johnson’s Tories continue to pursue the (possibly also fleeting) votes of the culturally reactionary working class, then the middle-class cosmopolitans that they alienate are going to have to go somewhere. Why not to the Lib Dems?
David Gauke, himself one of those disaffected Conservatives, outlined their task last week:
Rather than being all things to all people (an attribute that, admittedly, can be rather helpful in by-elections), the Liberal Democrats could turn themselves into the natural party for the home counties’ educated middle classes. Pro-business, economically responsible, socially liberal but not woke (…), and willing to challenge the government on its EU policy – there is an agenda that can appeal to longstanding Conservative voters …
And perhaps they will. But don’t hold your breath.