Chesham and Amersham: What can we learn from this stunning by-election upset?

Boris Johnson
Boris' brand was not a winner in Buckinghamshire

Should we treat the Lib Dem's Chesham and Amersham gain as a surprising one-off, or are their wider takeaways? Paul Krishnamurty analyses the result...

"The national Tory lead is normally bigger than the entire Lib Dem vote share. Yet they didn’t just win Chesham and Amersham. It was a landslide."

What an unbelievable result! As Max Liu reported earlier, the Lib Dems pulled off an enormous betting upset in Chesham and Amersham, after being matched up to odds of 16.5. All morning, I've been racking my brain, comparing the shock level to by-elections from the past.

Where does this rank alongside past upsets?

Odds-wise, it can't beat Dunfermline and West Fife. In 2006, the Lib Dems took it on a 16% swing, after Labour were matched at 1.011/100 to hold it. In 2008, the SNP gained Glasgow East from Labour on a 22.5% swing at around 15.014/1 if memory serves.

There have been plenty other massive swings, if nothing like as unpredictable. During the Western invasion of Iraq, the Lib Dems took a couple of 'safe' inner-city seats from Labour, in Brent South and Leicester South on 29% and 23% swings respectively. Previously the Tories had lost many seats on massive swings as the Major government imploded.

However I would argue this is more stunning than any past upset.

The ideological and tactical vagaries of Scottish politics are notoriously hard to read. Labour weren't a popular government when they lost any of those seats. The Lib Dems profited from opposing the war. The Tories were in freefall when losing the likes of Newbury or Littleborough and Saddleworth.

This, in complete contrast, comes as the Tories are totally dominant nationally, frequently recorded double-digit poll leads. The Lib Dems are at a low ebb, stuck in single digits That's right. The national Tory lead is normally bigger than the entire Lib Dem vote share. Yet they didn't just win Chesham and Amersham. It was a landslide.

Will the Tories lose Batley and Spen?

How, therefore, can we explain it and what are the indicators for the Batley and Spen By-Election on 1st July? Immediately, the Tories drifted from around 1.341/3 to the current 1.454/9 while Labour are into 3.39/4. Could it get closer?

Regarding that specific race, I'm still sceptical of drawing too many parallels, but less bullish than when tipping the Tories at 1.51/2. One takeaway could be simply a reversion to by-election norms - in that they play badly for the government and are perfect for risk-free, mid-term protest votes. An old Lib Dem speciality and more recently UKIP, which falls away at a general election.

The Tories failed miserably to get their voters out yesterday. Again, pretty normal for a mid-term by-election, but completely different to last month's historic gain of Hartlepool. That took place on the same day as high-profile, nationwide elections, in a region which has evidently seen a massive pro-Tory swing.

Batley and Spen will be higher profile than Chesham and Amersham, so it may prove easier to get the Tory vote out. The news that George Galloway is cutting through with some Muslim voters looks catastrophic for Labour. The main two parties were virtually tied at the locals, so small tactical or factional considerations could make all the difference. I cashed out my 1.51/2 pro-Tory position at 1.392/5 overnight. Let's wait and see if we get any polls.

Local factors tell part of the story

No doubt, local factors were important in Chesham and Amersham. Particularly HS2 and an apparently well-resourced, energetic Lib Dem campaign. They must form part of the explanation but certainly not all.

When initially previewing this race, and massively under-estimating Lib Dem potential, my focus was on the ruinous split among non-Tory, progressive or Remain voters. Labour's vote collapsed yesterday, in contrast to the last general election when the Lib Dems failed to break through in similar Home Counties constituencies.

Huge boost for progressive alliance cause

Could this be the start of a new, progressive tactical coalition? It is normal for long-standing governments, mired in corruption and fond of divisive rhetoric and stunts, to face a backlash. It has been abnormal for the mainstream media to focus on the opposition so much, mid-term.

The potential of such alliances should not be underestimated. When the Tories were last in opposition, a Lab/LD tactical alliance was in place across the land, aimed at keeping it that way. The Lib Dems rose steadily, then collapsed immediately after breaking the alliance, by forming a coalition with the Tories.

This result also reflects the regional and demographic trends re-aligning politics. Constituencies with higher shares of older, white, non-university educated are moving right, to Labour's existential threat.

But the reverse is true in seats like Chesham and Amersham - with larger numbers of graduates, in the London commuter belt. I noted some stunning results at the local elections, in Oxfordshire and the West of England, for example.

Johnson's divisive brand could damage Tories

Boris Johnson seems untouchable, unafflicted by scandal, and it remains very hard to see the Tories not winning another majority. They remain 1.51/2 favourites to win Most Seats and 2.0621/20 for an Overall Majority. However these trends could, if not checked, eventually leave the Tories facing an existential crisis.

This is not a conventional Conservative government. I could even quibble with the label but that's another story. Its agenda is bound to mean higher taxes on the middle-classes. Brexit is a catastrophe for many high-end employees or businesses. For every homeowner angry about HS2, there are three worried about houses being built on their green and pleasant land.

Then there are the relentless culture wars - which often involve taking a minority position to appease the base. Hence the mixed messaging and Tory division over footballers taking a knee. These tactics fundamentally misunderstand why the British Conservative Party is famously known as the most successful party in Europe.

They win because they understand the 'small c' conservatives and scepticism or fear of radical change. Satisfaction with the status quo. It does not follow, at all, that these 'small c' voters are turned on by culture wars and thinly-veiled racism.

Many of these unsatisfied voters would never vote Labour under any circumstances. But they might vote Lib Dem, or Green, local independents or some yet to be formulated alternative. Were, say a fifth, of such voters to flip to whomever they consider the non-threatening, best-placed alternative, it would transform the electoral geography of the country.

Follow Paul on Twitter and check out his website, Political Gambler.

Get a Free £/€20 Exchange Bet

  • Join Now - Open account using promo code VAL225
  • Bet - Place a £/€20 Bet on the Exchange
  • Earn We'll Refund You £/€20 If the Bet Loses

T&Cs apply.

Discover the latest articles

Read past articles