A rebellion is stirring in Boris Johnson’s backyard

Hugh Patterson could sense victory when he ran in local elections this year even though this area of rolling countryside, picturesque pubs and pricey rustic homes was a stronghold for his opponent from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party.

What Patterson was not expecting was a landslide.

As the count went on, a win turned into a rout, with so many former Conservative supporters deserting the party that Patterson, from the centrist Liberal Democrats, scooped up three-quarters of the vote in this part of Kent, southeast of London. In terms of election results, “It wasn’t quite North Korean,” he joked over a coffee, “but it would go down well with Putin.”

Hugh Patterson near his home in Tudeley, England, on July 8, 2021. (The New York Times)

While the Conservatives have lately made big gains in the Midlands and North of England — former industrial areas once dominated by the main opposition Labour Party and known as the “red wall” — a rebellion is stirring in Johnson’s backyard.

Britain’s polarizing 2016 referendum on European Union membership convulsed the country’s politics, forging divisions that cut across party allegiances. In its aftermath, voters are responding in different ways to Johnson’s hard-line Brexit messaging and brash, flag-waving style.

Last month, the Conservatives were shocked by the loss of a parliamentary by-election in the well-heeled district of Chesham and Amersham, northwest of London. And the risk for the Tories, analysts say, is that Johnson’s populism, free-spending instincts and economic tilt to the North of England undermine support among traditional Tories in the South — fracturing his own “blue wall.”

When Johnson won a landslide general election victory in 2019, he retained the support of many university-educated professionals in southern England who lean center-right but did not support Brexit. But that was often because they feared the alternative: the opposition Labour Party’s left-wing leader at the time, Jeremy Corbyn. Now they no longer have to make that choice, a number of traditional Tories feel politically homeless.

Even some Brexit voters dislike the occasionally jingoistic tone struck by the government, fret about the level of state spending or hate plans to enable more homes to be built in their semirural enclaves.

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“What was that old line of Ronald Reagan’s, ‘I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me,’” said Robert Ford, a professor of political science at Manchester University, referring to the former U.S. president’s migration to the Republican Party in 1962.

“There are a lot of Conservative voters in Surrey and Hampshire and Sussex and Buckinghamshire who feel the same way about the Conservative Party right now,” he said, referring to several traditionally Conservative counties in southern England.

Certainly, Patterson found a few. His vote in Tudeley was driven up because he opposes an unpopular planned housing development, but he detects a new mood.

“Nationalist sentiment plays well in certain parts of the country, but I’m not sure it plays well down here,” said Patterson, a history teacher, speaking in a country pub whose parking lot held several luxury autos. “If you are a lawyer and have a university degree and contacts in Europe why are you going to get excited about waving the union flag? It doesn’t compute.”

Down the road, Andrew Rankine, who works in corporate affairs, thinks Johnson has done well during the pandemic, particularly with the vaccination program.

But he is not sure that he is the right leader for the long term. “I do think we need to have a team of economists leading the country, not people who are quite so brash and willing to spend without due consideration,” Rankine said, adding that his politics are rooted in Conservative values.

In some respects the rebellion of England’s so-called Home Counties — the wealthy region surrounding London — is no surprise. The Brexit referendum was close (52% to 48%), and more than one-third of Conservative voters supported EU membership, only to see Johnson opt for a hard-line Brexit.

Education is a strong predictor of voting intention, and the prime minister’s approval ratings are lower among the university educated. The bad news for him is that this group is growing each year as a proportion of the voting population because of the expansion of higher education.

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And demographic change is underway around London as well, as university-educated professionals who tend toward the Labour Party’s more liberal politics quit the capital for more affordable towns in commuting distance.

“London will keep on sucking in graduates who start Labour, making them more Labour and then, when they get into their 30s, spraying them out into all of these currently very Tory seats,” said Ford, who likens the Conservatives’ position to that of a ship with a small leak.

So far, it is still afloat, and, fortunately for Johnson, disaffected anti-Brexit voters do not incline to one party but to several: Labour — now under more moderate leadership — the Greens and the Liberal Democrats.

However, the result of the Chesham and Amersham by-election suggests that voters are sometimes willing to switch to the candidate in the best position to defeat the Tories — in this case the Liberal Democrats — a process called tactical voting.

In that area, some former Conservative voters who wanted to remain in the EU say they feel alienated and frustrated. Melanie Barrett joined the Conservatives in 2015 because, she said, the party was centrist and believed in sound economic policies.

Now she feels her party has been “hijacked and swung to the right,” and is unimpressed with Johnson’s slogans, his emphasis on the flag and on the trappings of nationhood, like a replacement for the royal yacht.

“The boat and the flags,” said an exasperated Barrett, a trainee teaching assistant who quit her Tory party membership in 2020. “Can we stop the flags” We really don’t need any more!”

Melanie Barrett, who joined the Conservatives in 2015, in Beaconsfield, England, northwest of London. (The New York Times)

Suber Akther, a lawyer for Siemens, once represented the Conservative Party on the town council in affluent Beaconsfield, which borders the Chesham and Amersham parliamentary district, but also feels politically homeless.

“I don’t see the Conservative Party as the Conservative Party anymore,” he said, adding that it had been taken over by supporters of the Brexit Party, which was led by Nigel Farage. Akther feels that Britain’s big strides toward inclusiveness and tolerance are at risk, and that recent disputes over procurement contracts demonstrate a lack of accountability that borders on corruption.

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Some former Conservative voters in Beaconsfield express a mixture of disdain for the prime minister and alarm about his leadership. Over coffee, Breffni Walsh described Johnson as shameless and his politics as Trumpian, while Gerry Halls, who voted Conservative until 2019, thinks Johnson “is trying to run things without any checks and balances — and that has really got me frightened.”

People in Beaconsfield’s old town, northwest of London. (The New York Times)

Analysts say that it could be hard for Johnson’s opponents to exploit his weakening support in the next general election because Britain’s electoral system is unfavorable to smaller parties like the Liberal Democrats. To remove the Conservatives from power, the Labour Party needs to make significant gains, and that is a formidable task.

“To make an obvious arithmetical point, it would make no difference to Johnson’s overall majority if Tory losses in the well-heeled South are offset by further gains in the Red Wall North and Midlands,” wrote Peter Kellner, a polling expert in a recent political analysis. “Here’s the rub: There are more Labour members of Parliament vulnerable to the Tories than Tory members of Parliament vulnerable to the Lib Dems.”

Nonetheless, Ford believes that Johnson’s pitch for the North is a gamble, and that the risk of another seismic shift in Britain’s volatile politics is too often discounted.

“The problem with eroding traditional loyalties is that you can’t then rely on them when you need them, and you then open the door to some quite dramatic alignment,” he said.

“It’s like an earthquake or an avalanche,” he added. “The changes tend to be slow at first with the pressures building up — and then very fast.”

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