Boris Johnson has a unique ability to turn politics on its head. He was mocked for saying he would take the UK out of the EU and pulled it off; he got stuck on a zip wire and he turned it into a public relations triumph; he won a landslide election victory after leaving his wife for a woman 24 years his junior.
Demolishing Labour’s so-called ‘Red Wall’ of seats in the North of England in the 2019 election seemed to be just another example of his ability to defy political gravity.
But he was brought down to earth with a bump early yesterday by the Lib Dems’ thumping victory in the Amersham and Chesham by-election.
It has sparked fears among some Tory MPs that Mr Johnson’s remarkable success in the red wall in the North may have triggered a less welcome political reversal: that the ‘Blue Wall’ of Conservative seats in southern England is in danger of crumbling.
Ministers played down the defeat in Chesham and Amersham, mostly pinning the blame on the HS2 rail link.
Boris Johnson was brought down to earth with a bump early yesterday by the Lib Dems’ thumping victory in the Amersham and Chesham by-election (pictured in Dewsbury on Friday)
Indeed, driving through the Chilterns a few days ago, I noticed several parts of the beautiful landscape gouged out to prepare for the giant diggers and the massive trucks needed to move all the earth, bringing havoc and filth to the area – and wrecking house prices.
But the 8,000 margin of the Lib Dem victory was so big, they could well have beaten the Tories even without HS2.
For while the railway has understandably enraged Conservatives in Amersham and Chesham, the defeat has highlighted a little noticed electoral pattern which has concerned Tory strategists for several years.
Despite Mr Johnson’s stunning election success and the spectacular gains the Tories have made in the North, there are signs the party is doing less well in the South, stretching from the Severn Estuary to the Sussex coast and East Anglia.
According to one study of May’s local council results covering 82 Conservative Parliamentary seats in Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Hampshire, Surrey, West Sussex, East Sussex, Kent, Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire, the Tories would lose seven seats to the Lib Dems at the next general election. The seven seats are Winchester, Eastleigh, Eastbourne, Chippenham, Cheltenham, Watford and South Cambridgeshire.
The same survey said the Tories would gain Canterbury from Labour, making an overall loss of six in the Blue Wall.
Ministers played down the defeat in Chesham and Amersham (pictured), mostly pinning the blame on the HS2 rail link
If the Lib Dems can repeat the Amersham and Chesham upset, it would be back up to seven. You cannot blame Lib Dem leader Ed Davey for celebrating by taking a hammer to a plastic wall of blue bricks in a triumphant photocall.
But there is no need for No 10 to panic – yet.
The half-dozen or so Blue Wall seats purportedly at risk barely breaks through the grass compared to the towering red wall of 47 Labour seats in England that crumbled at the last election, including many in the North and Midlands.
And for all the humiliation of seeing Amersham and Chesham fall, arguably, Labour’s record low election vote of 622 was even worse for Sir Keir Starmer.
There are no Tory calls for Mr Johnson to resign.
If today’s Mail poll, which indicates that Sir Keir is heading for another Red Wall defeat in the by-election in Batley and Spen on July 1, proves to be true, the Labour leader’s army of Left-wing critics will demand his head.
In my view, that does not mean Mr Johnson can ignore the stirring in the shires.
And for all the humiliation of seeing Amersham and Chesham fall, arguably, Labour’s record low election vote of 622 was even worse for Sir Keir Starmer
A former senior Cabinet minister who spoke to the Mail on condition of anonymity said that the Chesham result marked a ‘seismic’ change in the British landscape that Mr Johnson would ‘ignore at his peril’.
The ex-minister, who has a shires seat, said Tories who defected to the Lib Dems in the by-election had a number of gripes. They had ‘been taken for granted’ by the Conservatives for too long, many voted Remain in the EU referendum and some objected to Mr Johnson’s style. They were offended by the way he was ‘loose with the truth’.
But perhaps the biggest factor, said the ex-minister, was the downfall of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader.
Faced with the choice between a Marxist with links to apologists for terrorism and Mr Johnson, even the Prime Minister’s biggest Tory sceptics had no trouble in marking their ‘X’ by Conservative in the voting booth.
With the Corbyn threat gone, voting for another party held little fear for Conservative ‘Boris doubters’, said the former minister.
But perhaps the biggest factor, said the ex-minister, was the downfall of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader
The main political casualty of the Tories’ Amersham and Chesham debacle could be Mr Johnson’s pledge to build hundreds of thousands of homes in the South.
It was one of the main complaints in the by-election.
Lib Dem activists told voters on the doorstep in the final days of the campaign: ‘Vote Tory and the bulldozers arrive on Monday.’
I am told that ex-Cabinet minister Theresa Villiers is in charge of a secret Tory Whats- App group made up of 90 mainly southern-based Conservative MPs determined to force the Prime Minister to perform a major U-turn on the housing pledge.
Former deputy prime minister Damian Green, MP for Ashford in Kent, explained to me: ‘We are not going to level up the North by concreting over the South. At the current rate, the Home Counties will soon be a giant patio.’
Isle of Wight Tory MP Bob Seeley warned the Government: ‘Force-feeding communities in the South with endless more housing like foie gras geese is no way forward.
‘If we allow the developers free-for-all to go on, it will be political suicide. As Winston Churchill said, the problem with political suicides is that you live to regret them.’