Until now, a narrative had developed around British politics that seemed very plausible after the Hartlepool by-election and earlier Conservative successes in the Midlands and North.
The story went that the Conservatives now had an unassailable dominance of British politics based on three assumptions: their inroads into traditional "red wall’ Labour-voting areas, and what used to be called "the working class," becoming permanent; the elimination of Labour as a serious force in Scotland; and the retention of support amongst relatively affluent and older, both suburban and rural, voters.
The Tories would then march on from earlier triumphs to retain the Chesham and Amersham seat in a by-election and capture Batley from Labour: all of which would underline what they would present as Boris Johnson’s leadership qualities, the success of Brexit and the wise, safe management of the Covid-19 pandemic. A divided, ineffectual opposition and a favourable parliamentary boundary review would then provide useful bonuses and would help to lock in a Conservative government for the foreseeable future.
We do not yet know what will happen in Batley on 1 July (currently the Tories appear to have a small lead) let alone whether Labour and Keir Starmer can recover from a calamitous loss of support or how the nationalist dynamics of Scotland will play out. What we do know, after Thursday, is that – against bookies’ odds of 10/1 – the safest of Conservative majorities is no longer safe. The earthquake in Chesham and Amersham - the conversion of a 16,000 Tory majority to an 8,000 majority for the Liberal Democrats - has shaken a lot of political buildings. The question now is whether there will be major aftershocks.
The by-election taught us that, beyond the local specifics, there are three things which may have longer-term significance. The first is the emergence of what one journalist has called "the revenge of the elite". There is a significant group of people who invariably voted Conservative, mostly for economic reasons to protect their interests, but who have had a bad few years, politically: the movers and shakers both nationally and locally.
These financially comfortable, decision makers in the private and public sector didn’t just lose to Brexit but have had to endure insults ever since. Their belief in rational, evidence-based decision making; their network of global friends; their cosmopolitan tastes: all these have become things to sneer at from populist right-wing politicians who seem to believe that ultimate wisdom is now to be found in downmarket pubs and in the columns of the Sun and Express. The elite is, by definition, relatively small but it votes and is also influential. It may have abandoned the Conservatives.
The second change may be the emergence of a powerful voting bloc, of young, educated, professional families who worry about the quality of local schools, air quality and the local environment, the costs of childcare and the mortgage. They are liberal without being "woke", green but "light" green – recycling and bicycles but keeping the family car, or two; community-minded but busy; and they care – for their children, older parents and, broadly, for the rest of society.
They are B’s rather than A’s or C’s; inhabit both public sector professional roles and positions in business in management and technical or freelance roles often in creative or tech industries. They voted Remain and would probably see themselves as floating voters in most parts of the country. Tony Blair and then David Cameron pitched to them. Jeremy Corbyn alarmed them and Johnson repels them.
They voted in droves for the Lib Dems in the by-election and have become the bedrock of Lib Dem support in those areas where the party have sunk deep roots – like my former constituency of Twickenham. We made a lot of them unhappy during the Coalition but that is now history, and they will come back where Lib Dems are seen as credible challengers.
In countries with a proportional voting system as in Germany, the Lib Dems’ equivalent – the FDP – with a similar voting base of 5 per cent to 10 per cent of the electorate has a sporting chance of being part of the ruling coalition government.
Not in the UK. The two big parties have kept their dominance under the "first past the post" system by maintaining coalitions of different groups of voters. The Conservatives have long operated with a formidable coalition of older voters, business – large and small – and social conservatives; the Mailocracy. They now have a new constituency among traditional Labour working class voters.
Labour now has a core constituency amongst young, educated, metropolitan voters in rented accommodation together with many ethnic minority communities alongside its – now disappearing – working class base. These voting blocs were sufficient to dominate parliamentary elections. That may be changing.
The third takeaway from the by-election is the power of assembling various groups opposed to the Conservatives once they can be marshalled, through tactical voting. The Labour vote in Chesham and Amersham evaporated and much of the Green support too.
The Lib Dems have been able to mobilise the anti-Tory vote – in particular constituencies from the Orpington by-election sixty years ago; through successful targeting strategies in general elections in 1997 and 2001; and in local government. The ‘it’s a two-horse race’ message has been successfully applied in many parts of the country, but narrowly Can it now be applied more generally in a post-Brexit, post-Corbyn era to give the Lib Dems a sustained come-back, helping to oust a Conservative government?
Pessimists argue that in a general election the old tribalism will reassert itself. Confusion created by new boundaries will make tactical voting calculations more complex and difficult. And anyway, the electorate appears not to like collusion between parties.
We could, however, see a return of the tacit cooperation between Lib Dem and Labour voters seen in the early Blair years. For the smaller parties an explicit seat sharing agreement of the kind which operated in 2019 but was overwhelmed by the bigger picture around Brexit and Corbyn.
The ideological gap between the opposition parties has narrowed. The Labour defeat of the Corbynites doesn’t appear to have greatly increased its overall popularity but will make it easier to reciprocate tactical voting.
The by-election has at the very least reinjected optimism and credibility into the Lib Dems who, apart from the breakthrough in local and European elections in 2019, have struggled since the early days of the 2010 coalition to get back into double figures in national opinion polls.
There could also be a deeper and bigger consequence: a puncturing of the complacency of the Conservative belief that they have stitched up British politics for the foreseeable future.
Sir Vince Cable is the former leader of the Liberal Democrats and served as secretary of state for business, innovation and skills from 2010 to 2015