The Surrey village of Claygate should be as Conservative as they come. It is palpably prosperous. As you step down from its railway station — a 35-minute ride from central London — there is not an empty window in the smart parade of boutique shops. It epitomises England’s comfortable southern suburbs.
The Esher and Walton constituency, where Claygate belongs, has the hallmarks of a safe Tory seat. It is filled with London escapees who fled for larger houses, better schools and a gentler way of life; voters who, as their lives progressed, have traditionally become more conservative.
Until the last general election, in December 2019, Esher and Walton consistently returned Tory MPs with solid majorities. At the 2015 election, the party won an enormous majority of 28,616 votes. When Dominic Raab, the local MP and deputy prime minister, was selected as its Conservative candidate over a decade ago, he would have imagined it was his for keeps.
But then came Brexit. Fifty-eight per cent of Esher and Walton voted to stay in the EU, 10 points ahead of the nationwide Remain vote. The result was a headache for Raab, one of the Tory party’s most prominent Brexiters. In the snap 2017 election called by then prime minister Theresa May, his majority shrank to 23,298. Then, in 2019, the election when prime minister Boris Johnson pledged to “get Brexit done”, it collapsed to a mere 2,743 votes. Next time — probably in 2024 — Raab faces the battle of his career.
Sitting in his Downing Street study, Johnson tells me he will “fight for every vote in every constituency”. The prime minister claims that his Conservative party remains “broad-minded”, that it “bears down on taxation, drives business investment and offers principled moral leadership in the world”. He adds: “We have a big, colossal, progressive agenda that will be transformative for the country.”
But Johnson is all too aware that just as Australia’s Liberal-National coalition saw the rise of the “teals” — economically conservative independent candidates who wiped away its majority — and as Canadian Conservatives suffered in last September’s federal elections, the toughest political battlegrounds for right-leaning parties are increasingly the suburbs.
Come 2024, the Tories face an offensive in their own heartlands, as well as the challenge of holding on to the seats they captured in traditional Labour territory in 2019. If Labour’s heartland collapse was the shock of the last election, the Conservatives’ decline in its southern heartland is more gradual. Whether it is about to speed up rapidly will be answered in constituencies such as Esher and Walton.
The question is how much of a fundamental realignment the UK is witnessing. Two by-elections this Thursday will offer clues: Labour is mounting a comeback in Wakefield, Yorkshire, a “red wall” seat captured by the Tories in 2019, while the Lib Dems are seeking to steal rural Tiverton and Honiton from the Conservatives.
The challenge facing Johnson’s party in Esher and Walton is equally troubling. Are richer voters from the managerial classes abandoning the party which traditionally backed their financial interests? Or is it a temporary spike of anger against a struggling prime minister and a stagnating economy?
The quiet revolution in Esher and Walton and its 30-odd brethren seats across southern England marks the second chapter of Britain’s post-referendum realignment. Part one was the collapse of the red wall in the north and Midlands, which had become increasingly prosperous after the 40-year upheaval of deindustrialisation. Disgruntlement with the political establishment pushed voters there towards Brexit; Jeremy Corbyn’s far-left leadership of Labour threw them into the Tories’ arms.
Part two may be the prosperous south — the “blue wall” — drifting from the Tories towards the Liberal Democrats, driven by younger, liberal-minded, university-educated voters moving to the suburbs.
The term “blue wall” was coined in April last year by Steve Akehurst, an independent campaign strategist with a background in housing policy. He scouted 40-odd seats that had been held by the Conservatives since 2010 (and in many cases long before); where Labour or the Lib Dems overperformed their national swing in both the 2017 and 2019 elections; and where the Tory majority is now below 10,000, putting the opposition within striking distance.
This blue wall definition encompasses some of the Tory party’s most prominent suburban seats, including Johnson’s own constituency in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, former party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith’s outer east London perch of Chingford and Woodford Green, and Esher and Walton. All three seats are on the periphery of London, dominated by middle-class, white-collar voters.
Unlike the red wall, they are not roughly contiguous and hold varying economic profiles. A handful are on the outskirts of northern cities, but the majority are in the south of England. In some seats, Labour is the clear challenger; in others, it is the Lib Dems. They are unlikely to fall in unison, as happened to Labour in the north. Research by Onward, a right-leaning think-tank, suggests that it is more of a “blue drift” away from the Tories.
Monica Harding hopes to deliver the final blow against Raab. We meet at Claygate’s Parade + Albany café one weekday morning. A management consultant, Harding moved out of London 15 years ago with her four children and had little appetite for politics — until 2016 and the Brexit referendum, when she became “fed up” and joined the Lib Dems. At the 2019 election, she almost became Esher and Walton’s first non-Tory MP since 1906. She found Brexit to be a key vote winner. “People here were pretty appalled that they weren’t being listened to.”
The Lib Dems cottoned on late in the campaign that Esher was in play. “We met lots of people on the doorstep who said, ‘If only I had known earlier, I would have switched the other way’,” says Harding. However, the greatest factor in her missing the seat was, she says, the then Labour leader: “It was all ‘Vote for Monica, you’ll get Corbyn in’.”
At the next election, Esher and Walton’s voters will probably face the more centrist prospect of Sir Keir Starmer as their alternative prime minister: a 59-year-old lawyer who grew up in the town of Oxted, 20 miles away from Claygate. Surrey voters generally found Labour “scary”, according to Harding, but Starmer “takes away the Corbyn factor”.
And what of Johnson? Harding reckons that many voters in Esher and Walton reluctantly backed the prime minister in 2019 despite concerns that have only grown through his three turbulent years in Downing Street. She talks up what she calls a “steady drip of sleaze and corruption”.
She also senses policy unhappiness. Many voters feel that public services are failing and the British state is not working for them. Or as she puts it: “You’ve got a constituency which is the biggest single contributor to the exchequer in the country, where people can’t get appointments and don’t have policemen on the beat.”
She is aware that her battle has wider significance. “That kind of unholy coalition that you had in 2019 — between the red-wall Conservatives and the one-nation Conservatives — is coming unstuck here.”
The voting coalition that gave Johnson an 80-seat majority, the party’s largest since 1987, is so broad that it has made the parliamentary Conservative party almost ungovernable. The 2019 intake is far from homogeneous: some feel their political future rests on Johnson’s appeal in pro-Brexit England, but many are traditional Tories representing seats with strong Lib Dem challengers.
The latter group is fearful of where Johnson is taking their party — from his interventionist policies on the economy, to his handling of the “partygate” scandal, to fears that the economy is tanking. Many of the 41 per cent of Tory MPs who voted against the prime minister in the recent confidence vote represent the blue wall and are worried about their future.
A relaxed-looking Dominic Raab is waiting for me at Hummings on Esher high street, a café by day and bar by night. The deputy prime minister’s seat may be suburban but he posits that many of its residents maintain city sensibilities. “In lots of small ways, this is a crossroad seat between London and the shires. For some people here in Esher, people lay their head on the pillow [here] but really consider themselves Londoners.”
With the Tories losing strongholds in the capital in May’s local elections, that would appear to bode badly for Raab. When Raab first entered parliament 12 years ago, the tenor of Tory politics chimed well with Esher and Walton. He credits his huge majorities in 2015 and 2017 to the “small-L liberal conservative values” that underpin the seat — though his personal politics are those of a steely-eyed Brexiter.
But doesn’t he think there are tribal loyalties to the Tories, as Labour had in the red wall? “Above all it’s quite consumerist, in the sense that my constituents ask, ‘What is a party going to do for me?’” he says.
Raab puts his loss of some 21,000 votes in two years down to “a whole range of things”, including protest voting and the salience of Brexit. Despite his party’s run of losses to the Liberal Democrats, he predicts the next election will be “more business as usual” for the Tories, presenting an economic competence message akin to previous campaigns.
What of Johnson personally — is he a hindrance? “I don’t think voters will be theological about this,” he says carefully. “The prime minister’s values are perfectly well placed for a seat like his because he’s socially liberal . . . We introduced the Magnitsky sanctions [on human rights abusers]. He has led on the issue of net zero. That’s very important around here.”
Raab’s campaign for holding on to Esher and Walton reflects what the electorate can expect from Johnson nationally, if he makes it to the next election as leader — arguing that the government “made the calls of the pandemic right” while taking potshots at Starmer. “To the extent that he’s resonated at all, [Starmer] is in the same economic place as Gordon Brown,” says Raab. “He’s very careful, in the lawyerly-like way, in avoiding articulating what he’s going to stand for.”
Above all, Raab hopes that the two years to the next election will improve the government’s record. “We’ve got to spend two years delivering and demonstrating that, and if we do and we get our vote out, I’m confident we will win.” One senior Tory strategist, however, put Raab’s hopes a little more bluntly: “He’s probably fucked”.
The Liberal Democrats have a battle plan to dismantle the blue wall. Its strategists are hoping to double their present tally of 13 MPs. Their 2024 campaign will be almost entirely focused on the suburbs, giving Labour a clear run at the red wall. As one of the party’s senior strategists told me: “One reason for Lib Dem optimism is that the general election for both Labour and the Tories is fought elsewhere — not only geographically, but by appealing to the least liberal aspects of their voting coalitions.”
From his cramped Westminster office, Sir Ed Davey, Lib Dem leader since 2020, is betting on the shifts that he has observed in his own constituency. Davey has served as the MP for Kingston, south-west London, since 1997 (aside from two years out of office), and is struck by the area’s changing character. “You could really feel that it was a different demography from 20 years before . . . it’s young families, so education is much more important.”
The Lib Dems have always been flexible on the economy, sometimes favouring tax and spending, at other times leaning towards economic liberalism. Davey intends to focus his pitch on the latter to win over Tories. “For some reason, we’ve never managed to persuade them that we’re the right party for them. We haven’t changed our values — we’ve always been pro-market, pro-economy, pro-small business, pro-free enterprise. There’s a clue in our name, liberal.”
Davey is working quietly with Labour, but insists there will be no formal electoral pact. “We have limited resources and therefore have to make choices about where we put our resources. Even a big party like Labour has to make choices.”
Then the Lib Dems have to convince wavering Tories. Like Monica Harding, he intends to focus on Johnson’s character. His recent time on the stump suggests that potential switchers “feel really embarrassed about Johnson. Johnson absolutely is a negative.”
Back in Downing Street, at an oval mahogany table littered with coffee cups and official papers, a month before the confidence vote in his leadership, Johnson insists his economic instincts are still in tune with those of traditional Tories. Cutting taxes is an obvious way to try to secure the blue wall — yet government plans mean that, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility, by 2025-26 the tax burden will be at its highest level since just after the second world war.
“I want to cut taxes. You have heard what the chancellor said in the Spring Statement — we both want to cut taxes as fast and as soon as we responsibly can.”
In private, the prime minister has spoken of his desire to win back “Waitrose Woman”, the latest stereotype of a supposed swing voter. This imagined figure is well-heeled, socially liberal, a small-c conservative; she has fewer interactions with the state than a red-wall Tory and is unsympathetic to the government’s culture war skirmishes.
She almost certainly lives in Esher and Walton. What offer does he have for her? “Levelling up works for the whole country. It is blindingly obvious that in London’s commuter belt, there is massive pressure on green space, there is massive pressure on GP surgeries, there is pressure on commuter networks. Congestion, quality of life, journey times, the amount of time you can see your kids in the evening — these are the things we’re looking at.”
Johnson suggests that “levelling up” could cheer up the suburbs of the south, pointing to happiness ratings across the UK. “The south is where people feel the greatest stress, the greatest pressures in the world,” he says. “Levelling up is the answer because what it means is that you allow the economy to develop in a way that’s more symmetrical.”
Is Johnson worried about the Lib Dems nibbling away at his core vote? He claims that his opponents are “hypocritical in everything that they do”, pointing to their vacillations on building more houses and the HS2 high-speed railway. “They have zero consistency. I don’t know what they stand for.” Some of Johnson’s lost voters in both the red and blue walls might say the same of him.
If a second British political realignment is taking place, the Lib Dems do not have to take many seats from the Tories to oust the party from office. If the Conservatives lost a dozen in the north to Labour, a dozen in the south, plus a similar amount of typical marginals, Johnson’s time in office would be over. Leaving Claygate, suburbia seems as placid as ever — but for how long?
Sebastian Payne is the FT’s Whitehall editor. The paperback of his book ‘Broken Heartlands: A Journey Through Labour’s Lost England’ is published this month by Pan Macmillan
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