After a string of scandals, the prime minister has suffered substantially in the polls and, although politics is now dominated by the war in Ukraine, he remains unpopular among the public. While Labour benefited, building a significant lead in the polls, though it has since dropped somewhat following the war in the Ukraine, the Liberal Democrats also enjoyed a bump.
This bump follows tangible successes. Last year, the Chesham and Amersham by-election victory saw the idea of the ‘blue wall’ take hold, as the Liberal Democrats’ leader Ed Davey took an orange mallet to a wall of blue bricks. Second came North Shropshire, a Brexit voting rural seat, previously thought of as ‘safe’ Conservative.
The blue wall has been defined by academic Tim Bale and others as “traditionally Tory strongholds in southern England (typically wealthier, Remain-supporting and often suburban) which risk, at least in the long-term, slipping out of the Conservatives’ hands”.
While new research by Onward has poured cold water on the immediate threat to these southern seats, the think tank emphasised a “blue drift” over coming years and warned the Conservatives to “not take their eye off their increasingly vulnerable seats” in the south.
Liberal Democrats’ plans to target just 30 seats at the next general election, including Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab’s Esher and Walton constituency, suggest the party has learned its lesson from 2019’s “car crash” campaign when it overstretched and ended with then leader, Jo Swinson, losing her seat by a few hundred votes to the SNP.
Blue wall voters care about the environment
Focusing on the blue wall would seem sensible. Former Conservative minister David Gauke said last summer that if the Lib Dems want to “turn the blue wall yellow”, they must be “pro-business, economically responsible, socially liberal but not woke”, and a party “willing to challenge the government on its EU policy”.
What is often missed from the picture is that blue wall voters also tend to care deeply about the environment and the government’s commitment to net zero. Polling, commissioned by Greenpeace in October 2021, found that just nine per cent of voters in these constituencies thought the government was doing too much on climate. Most importantly, over half wanted to see more done.
Liberal Democrats and the Greens are ready to take advantage of any signs that the Conservatives are going soft on climate and nature in the May local elections. The focus on a windfall tax on North Sea oil and gas companies and concerns about sewage in rivers suggest they are already alive to the opportunity.
Prominent figures on the centre-right are raising the alarm. Sam Hall, director of the Conservative Environment Network, has emphasised the significance of the Tory poll lead over Labour on climate at the end of last year, he also warned, “Conservatives face strong challenges from the Lib Dems and Greens on environmental issues” in the blue wall. Similarly, Ted Christie-Miller of Onward, has said, “losing the climate ticket altogether could risk voters in those ‘Blue Wall’ seats”.
An outmoded way of seeing the green economy
Some Conservatives see it differently. For the leader of the net zero critics, Steve Baker, climate policies, such as promoting electric vehicles aren’t “natural territory” for the party. He has said, “we’re not the Lib Dems, we’re not hippies in sandals”. But this is a strangely outmoded way of viewing green economic measures, which are now backed by the majority of the public, parliamentarians and business.
A handful of Conservative backbenchers are trying to undermine progress the UK government has built up in recent years. When it comes to election time, this could be a problem for Conservative councillors and MPs in the blue wall if this narrative starts to gain traction.
One thing is clear, Conservatives face a challenge to keep their coalition together. Red wall voters expect the government to deliver on promises to deliver green jobs and to level up their areas with more advantaged areas. Meanwhile, Conservative voters in the south may question their political allegiances if the UK’s climate resolve starts to crumble. The spring local elections will be a litmus test for the sturdiness of the blue wall.