The Observer’s take on the Conservatives’ election defeat in Chesham and Amersham | Editorial observer


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The Tories’ resounding defeat in last week’s by-elections to Chesham and Amersham should sound the alarm bells for Boris Johnson. There are several ways to view this result as an anomaly: opposition to HS2 and planning reforms; a strong local campaign by the Liberal Democrats; a lackluster conservative candidate. All of these were factors, but this huge swing against a government that won an overwhelming majority just 18 months ago – in one of its central seats – hints at the electoral consequences of substituting empty rhetoric and cultural wars that divide for competent governance in a national crisis. This suggests that Johnson’s appeal may not be as universal as his supporters believe.

The result of the by-elections is further evidence of the long-term realignment of English politics. Just as Labor lost the support of alienated leave voters in its central seats, last month’s local election results show how the Tories are losing support from working-age graduates, many of whom voted Remain, in this which were traditionally conservative strongholds in wealthy areas of London and the South East. This has become more noticeable since the 2019 elections, when many socially liberal Tory voters who backed Remain backed Boris Johnson because they couldn’t accept the idea of ​​Jeremy Corbyn as PM and, despite their pro-EU sentiments, just wanted Brexit to be over .

While the Liberal Democrats have capitalized on strong opposition to HS2 and liberalized planning rules to secure their victory, these issues cannot be dissociated from Johnson’s failure to secure national support for the reforms needed to move forward. its “leveling” program. The defeat of the by-elections is a testament to the flaws in Johnson’s approach. He can only achieve long-term electoral success if he unites a coalition of socially liberal and academic voters in the Conservative heart seats with the so-called ‘red wall’ seats the Tories won against Labor in 2019. .

Many Tory MPs backed Johnson for the prime minister’s post despite concerns over his competence, as they believed he was uniquely positioned to do so. But the Conservatives’ losses in areas like Surrey, Kent and Cambridgeshire in local elections suggest Johnson’s reliance on populist rhetoric is not enough to keep this coalition together.

Dangers are looming for the Conservatives who are forcing them to adjust their course. First, Johnson used pledges to reduce regional inequalities and equalize economic growth across the country to continue to attract Party voters who once voted Labor. But so far, this is just rhetoric, as the conservative policies of the past decade continue to make people’s lives much more difficult, of cuts to public services which have disproportionately affected poorer parts of the country, to cut financial support to lower-paid parents, in some cases to thousands of pounds per year. The costs of Brexit will only make it even more difficult to reduce regional inequalities. And the government appears poised to inflict further hardship on low-income families with the intention of cutting universal credit by £ 20 per week from September.

Perhaps because the Tories realize their upgrade program lacks substance, they have focused relentlessly on crop war issues: the BBC on whether the audience should sing lyrics on the last one. night of the Proms. Fomenting culture wars can yield cheap press results, but trying to win votes by sowing the seeds of division and pitting citizens against each other is not only morally deplorable, but of limited benefit to society. electoral plan. On a subject like immigration, for example, the views of the British public are pragmatic rather than fueled by prejudice and hostility; 90% of voters believe immigration is essential as long as its levels are determined by economic need. Yet the government continues to maintain breathtakingly cruel immigration policies under the guise of a hostile environment – meaning young people who grew up in Britain face thousands of pounds of fees and a Kafkaesque bureaucracy to regularize their status – placing it far to the right of the public.

The culture wars strategy is the sign of a Prime Minister whose sole mission was to deliver a hard Brexit. Completely lacking in a constructive vision, he uses these tactics to distract from his government’s blatant incompetence. His terrible judgment directly contributed to the lethality of the second wave of the pandemic and the preventable deaths of countless people. His commitment to deliver the toughest Brexit, whatever the costs, contributed to instability in Northern Ireland and bolstered support for Scottish independence. He runs the country like he ran the Vote Leave campaign: using classic populist disinformation tactics – like lying about the implications of the Northern Ireland Protocol for border controls in the Irish Sea – and focusing on rhetoric in the background.

It is an unsustainable way of governing, and the voters will eventually turn against it. How quickly this happens will also depend on the ability of opposition parties to articulate an alternative vision for Britain as the Conservatives’ failures become more evident. But the result of Chesham and Amersham reminds us that Boris Johnson is not covered with political Teflon; that he will at some point suffer the consequences of his incompetence; and that borrowing from the populist playbook may end in failure.

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