Defiant Boris Johnson tells planning critics they’re wrong despite by-election humiliation

In addition to planning reforms, there is evidence of tactical voting with Labour voters switching to support the Lib Dems in this instance. The message to opposition parties is that they need wins like this to rebuild their credibility, and they probably have to do this collaboratively. – Owl

A defiant Boris Johnson has told critics of his planning shake-up they have got it wrong, despite his humiliation in the Chesham and Amersham by-election.

The prime minister called suggestions that the Conservatives are losing their Southern heartland voters “a bit peculiar, a bit bizarre”.

And he insisted: “I think there’s some misunderstanding about the planning reforms – even some wilful misunderstanding on the part of some of our opponents.

“What we want is sensible plans to allow development on brownfield sites. We’re not going to build on greenbelt sites, we’re not going to build all over the countryside.”

The triumphant Liberal Democrats have pointed to anger over the top-down planning changes as a key reason for the shock overturning of a 16,000 Tory majority in the true-blue Buckinghamshire constituency.

Some believe the shake-up – which critics say hands too much power to developers, undermining local democracy – may be dead in the water, with the government fearing a further backlash.

But Mr Johnson appeared to point to the construction of the HS2 high-speed rail line as the reason for his crushing defeat, referring to “particular circumstances there”.

And he defended the planning changes, claiming they are vital to enabling young people to get onto the housing ladder – something rejected by a recent Commons inquiry.

“The young people growing up in this country should have the chance of homeownership and that’s what we’re focusing on,” the prime minister said, on a college visit.

“I think it’s a great dream for young people in their 20s, 30s that they currently don’t have in the way that they perhaps had a few decades ago.

“And that’s something that we want to bring back, we want to make it easier. And that’s what we’re all about.”

Ed Davey, celebrating his party’s “best-ever by-election result”, called the planning controversy “symbolic” of the way Southern voters are being ignored by the Tories.

It would “give so much power to developers and take them away from communities and not result in the affordable housing people need”, the Lib Dem leader warned.

But the prime minister’s spokesman played down any immediate rethink, telling journalists: “I’m not aware of any planned changes.”

Speaking in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, Mr Johnson also said he is “very confident” that the remaining coronavirus restrictions in England will be lifted on 19 July.

Again, calling it “a terminus date” he said: “I think that’s certainly what the data continues to indicate.”

And he backed Matt Hancock despite the revelation that he called the health secretary “f***ing hopeless” in embarrassing messages revealed by Dominic Cummings.

Mr Johnson said: “I have complete confidence in Matt and indeed all of the government who have been dealing with Covid-19 during the pandemic.”

So, to the classic by-election question: how much does it matter?

Extract from Telegraph “Front Bench”

The usual argument is that by-elections should never be extrapolated and there are reasons to think that this morning. 

Unlike Hartlepool, where the Government picked up a seat, this is a resumption of normal service, where voters punish the ruling party.

There were also two key local issues making the Conservatives particularly unpopular: HS2, which cuts through the constituency, and the possibility of big new housing developments under the Government’s planning reforms. 

Indeed, the fact that Labour mustered just 622 votes suggests there was a strong element of tactical voting (although that is an abysmal result for Labour nonetheless).

And yet, this was a huge swing – the 14th biggest in a by-election ever. And the fact that it was the Lib Dems, rather than Labour, lends it more significance.

Just as there is a political realignment going on in the North and Midlands that has allowed the Tories to bag dozens of seats, there appears to be a concurrent realignment in the South.

Like the Conservatives in 2017, albeit on a much smaller scale, the Lib Dems fell badly short in 2019 but did finish second in many places that they hadn’t been competitive in before.

Chesham and Amersham is one of them. In 2017 they were third and in 2015, fourth. 

Indeed, this result wasn’t actually completely out of the blue. The Lib Dems went from zero seats to majority control of Amersham council at the local elections earlier this year, suggesting there’s genuine substance to this result.

There are other signs of realignment too. In 2015 Ukip came second. That’s an indicator of the change in the local area, driven by wealthy millennials moving out of London and bringing their liberalness with them. 

The question for both the Tories and the Lib Dems is whether this is the first manifestation of a wider trend. Is this the southern corollary of realignment that is turning the North blue and transforming the Conservative party?

If so, can the Tory majority survive it? 

Of course, that’s reading rather a lot into a single by-election, and more swallows will be needed before the Lib Dems can declare it summer. 

Even in the medium term, though, this shock result is likely to have significant consequences. For one, the Tory backbenches are only likely to get more jittery over planning reforms. 

For the Lib Dems, though, this is a vital moment in proving that they are still relevant and building momentum towards the next election.