Age 22 and not long out of college, George Blundell never expected to win when he ran in municipal elections against a Conservative Party bigwig in a region long loyal to the Tories. But for a young, enthusiastic, former politics student, it still seemed worth a shot.
“I was like, ‘Well, what’s stopping me’? It’s not something you get to do every day, is it?” recalled Blundell, a member of the centrist Liberal Democrats, as he sipped a beer outside the village pub where he once washed dishes as a summer job.
To his surprise, Blundell is now a councilor representing the area around Littlewick Green, having defeated the powerful incumbent in perhaps the biggest upset from local elections that have sent shock waves through Britain’s governing Conservative Party.
Unhappy about Brexit and aghast at the economic chaos unleashed during Liz Truss’ brief leadership last year, traditional Conservative voters are deserting the party in key English heartlands, contributing to the loss of more than 1,000 municipality seats in voting this month.
With a general election expected next year, that is alarming for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who has earned solid marks as a problem solver and seems to have stanched the party’s bleeding from the Truss fiasco, but whose party nevertheless lags far behind the opposition Labour Party in opinion polls.
In these affluent areas within reach of London — called the “blue wall” after the campaign color of the Conservatives — the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, rather than Labour, made big gains in this month’s local elections. But when the next general election comes, the defection of voters from the Conservative Party could deprive Sunak of a parliamentary majority and propel Labour’s leader, Keir Starmer, into Downing Street.
It could also sweep from Parliament prominent Conservatives — like the chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, and the senior Cabinet minister, Michael Gove — who hold seats in Conservative southern heartlands, as does the former prime minister, Theresa May, the member of Parliament for Maidenhead.
According to Robert Ford, professor of political science at the University of Manchester, they have only themselves to blame because many moderate Conservatives feel their party has abandoned them, rather than the other way around.
“Their Conservative Party was about stable government and low taxes, and looking after the City of London,” he said, referring to the financial district to which many voters here commute. “This Conservative government has delivered none of that.”
“Rishi Sunak turning up and saying ‘Don’t worry, I know we spent five years burning down the house, but someone who is not an arsonist is in charge now,’” Ford said. “Well, it’s not enough.”
Certainly, it proved insufficient in Littlewick Green which, with its village pub, cricket field and pavilion flying British flags, is an unlikely spot for a political insurrection.
Yet, so successful was Blundell that, when he joined a crowd of around 200 people celebrating the coronation of King Charles III, they greeted their newly elected representative with spontaneous applause.
Blundell, who works as a training adviser for an education firm, said he blushed so hard that “I basically turned into a human tomato.” He added: “I’ve known them all for a long time, and I want to do well by them and help them out — even if it’s the smallest things.”
In this quintessential corner of “blue wall” Britain, Blundell lives with his siblings (he is a triplet) and mother, a vicar, in a house that was once used as a set by the makers of “Midsomer Murders,” a TV detective show featuring gory crimes in scenic English villages.
Blundell attributes his victory to a combination of national politics, local factors and the complacency of local Conservatives. The night of the count was “spectacular,” he added.
Simon Werner, the leader of the Liberal Democrats in Windsor and Maidenhead, thinks the success can be repeated in a general election. “The ‘blue wall’ is crumbling,” he said. “We’ve proved we can do it on a local basis and now we have to step up and do it at the general election next year.”
In part, the events here represent the aftershocks of the polarizing leadership of Boris Johnson, who won a landslide general election victory in 2019 with the support of voters in deindustrialized areas in the north and middle of England. But Johnson’s bombastic, pro-Brexit rhetoric, disdain for the business sector and focus on regenerating the north of England never endeared him to moderate Conservatives in the south.
Most stuck with the Tories in 2019 because Labour was then led by left-winger Jeremy Corbyn. But with the more centrist Starmer now firmly in charge, the prospect of a Labour government is no longer so scary for many traditional Tories, liberating them to abandon the Conservatives.
Even some Conservative lawmakers admit they are worried by the appeal of the Liberal Democrats to these voters.
“Those traditional moderate Conservatives for whom the world works very well — who were happy to be in the European Union because it worked for them — yes, I am concerned to attract them back from the Liberal Democrats,” said Steve Baker, a government minister and lawmaker who represents Wycombe, close to Windsor and Maidenhead.
There are demographic factors at play as well, as younger voters relocate from London, a Labour stronghold, forced out by high property prices.
But local issues are important, too. At Maidenhead Golf Club, which was established in 1896, there is anger that the Conservative-controlled municipality facilitated plans to construct around 1,800 houses on the 132 acres of land the club rents — threatening to make the club homeless.
Merv Foulds, a former club treasurer and lifelong Conservative voter, said that on election day he decided not to join his wife at their polling station, adding: “If I had I would not have voted Tory.”
Both locally and nationally the Conservatives are seen as untrustworthy, he said, while Sunak has yet to prove persuasive.
“Sometimes, when he speaks, you just get the feeling he is speaking down to you,” said Foulds, an accountant. “At least with Boris you felt that he was talking to you — even though he might have been talking drivel, and maybe lying through his back teeth as well.”
- The New York Times
The writer is the London correspondent of NYT and writes widely about Britain