An early account of the way Boris Johnson likes to approach problems comes from his school newspaper at Eton College. “Watch the Blond Behemoth crud relentlessly through the steaming pile of purple-and-orange heavyweights.” In case it’s not obvious, this is a write-up of the young Johnson playing the wall game, which is only played and understood by Etonians.
He has spent the ensuing years crudding his way through piles of his political opponents. But now he finds himself not so much in a wall game as a wall war, with Conservatives in the blue wall of their traditional heartlands in revolt at his apparent neglect of them in favour of the newly elected red-wall MPs in the north and Midlands.
Things came to a head last week when the Conservatives managed to lose a 16,000 majority in Chesham and Amersham. The Lib Dems, who snatched it with a 25% swing away from the incumbents following the death of Cheryl Gillan, were naturally delighted, predicting this would be the first of many bricks they could take out of the blue wall. Party leader, Ed Davey, even smashed a line of blue bricks, looking pleased and relieved that a party that many had started ignoring again was back in the limelight.
The Lib Dems never really go away: they merely hibernate until the next political opportunity comes along and in this election they were as opportunist as ever, campaigning noisily against a policy they have always backed (HS2) and against plans to build more local homes, even though nationally the Lib Dems talk a good game about the housing crisis. That last point is so integral to any Lib Dem byelection campaign that it seems to work like a reflex. But in this particular race, it had added potency because the Tories have added controversial reforms to the planning system that will make it easier to build more homes.
One Conservative MP in the south-east of England explains the particular political problem with these reforms: “Our voters feel that the government isn’t paying them any attention save to turn up and dump loads of homes they don’t want on their green views. That’s the only time the government is interested in them.” Another says: “I canvassed in Chesham and the three things that came up explicitly were the Remain vote, HS2 and planning. But there was also a sense from a lot of these voters that they were paying all this tax and their areas were contributing all this money to the economy and it was just being taken straight out of the area and up north.”
There is growing resentment that Johnson has spent the past year and a half since winning his majority talking about red-wall seats and announcing policies to “level up” the country, all the while assuming that the Tory heartlands will just stay where they are.
It is this assumption that certain voters will always back your party that did for Labour in red-wall areas. Conservative MPs are worried their prime minister might be making the same mistake again.
They aren’t laughing off Davey’s threats about the resurgence of the Lib Dems. In fact, they’ve long had a WhatsApp group called the “Love Bombers”, which represents Lib Dem-facing Conservative seats. In it, MPs have been expressing concerns about neglect of the blue wall for some time. “Just because our seats are prosperous doesn’t mean they can be taken for granted,” says one member. “That’s not how it works in politics these days.”
In fact, the Tories also risk taking for granted that all their traditional voters even like Boris Johnson when all they really know is that he did well in 2019 because he was not Jeremy Corbyn.
The content of another MPs’ WhatsApp group undermines a mistaken assumption about how blue-wall MPs feel about the Chesham result. Most reporting has suggested they are upset by it. The truth is that while no one likes their party to lose a seat, blue wallers feel empowered. It is far more useful for them to have a defeat that will make the party top brass pay attention than a win that is used as evidence that everything is just fine in the heartlands.
In the “Planning” WhatsApp group, the 80 or so members have spent the days since the Chesham count sharing their relief that finally Johnson and ministers will have to junk their threatened planning reforms and stop ignoring them.
“Up to this point,” one MP explains, “there has been plenty of engagement from ministers but they’re still not listening.” The housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, is rarely out of a meeting with Tory MPs worried about planning. He sees them in groups and many come back alone to explain their particular concerns about the local impact of the proposed reforms. And any opportunity these MPs get to buttonhole Johnson, they seize it.
Last week, he held a gathering in the Downing Street garden for some of his MPs and was surrounded by a group who talked at him with increasing emotion about planning reform. “He couldn’t get a word in edgeways,” says one onlooker. “Every time he tried to bat one of them down, another would pipe up. They were so upset.”
One thing that has further antagonised these MPs is the feeling that Johnson and colleagues are treating them “like a bunch of nimbys”. They don’t feel that this is fair, not least because their job is to feed back the views of their constituents. Others argue that local plans are wholly inappropriate, with thousands of homes due to be built on flood plains, for instance.
What’s more, they don’t see their constituents as selfish baby boomers who, having bought a lovely big house with a pretty view, want to pull up the ladder to younger people who can’t afford a home. In fact, a source of anger that has largely been missed in examinations of the blue wall is the cladding crisis. There isn’t much cladding in many of the commuter belt seats that are beginning to revolt. But constituents there are worried about it because many have helped their children with a deposit for their first flat in London, only to find that this flat has been rendered unsellable by the cladding scandal and their child faces tens of thousands of pounds in leaseholder bills for remedial work to the building. The bank of mum and dad is intimately involved in both ends of the housing crisis, from the threat of development those parents don’t like to the problems faced by their children.
But up to this point, MPs who manage to ambush Johnson or find themselves in yet another meeting with Jenrick sense there is a block in these men’s minds: they have decided the backbenchers are wrong and have misunderstood the reforms, rather than that they may have a good point.
Of course, all this angst from the blue wall is making red-wall MPs feel rather insecure. They have their own campaigning wing, the Northern Research Group, set up because many red-wall backbenchers felt the government was merely talking a good game on levelling up without delivering the goods. They decided they had to use a megaphone to get through to the prime minister. There is not yet a Southern Research Group, but now the red wall and the blue wall are in conflict for Johnson’s attention, with neither side feeling the prime minister is fully behind them.
As he tries to run from wall to wall in his party, Johnson can’t just “crud relentlessly” over his MPs any more. Since winning the election, he has found that his big majority has a lot of Swiss cheese-like holes in it and, as normal politics resumes, it will become harder for him to assume that he can do the kind of building back better that he believes is necessary.
His treatment of planning sceptics as nimbys implies a lack of respect for backbenchers, which is always a dangerous place for any party leader to go. One rebel warns: “They cannot just assume that they can do what they want and that they will automatically take the parliamentary party with them.” The pandemic has only made this lack of respect more obvious, because ministers have come to expect that restrictions on freedom will pass the Commons but with a reasonably sized Tory rebellion.
It means they have become immune to the sound of discontent, rather than seeing it as a warning sign. Medical professionals say they often worry that their necessary tolerance of the sound of pain from patients to whom they are providing uncomfortable treatment will harden them too much to distress generally. The Conservatives are experiencing the same struggle.