With the polls regularly showing double-digit Tory leads and the Covid restrictions on course to go on the 19 July, you might expect Tory MPs to be in a fairly relaxed mood. But, as I say in the new edition of the magazine, last week’s by-election, which saw the Liberal Democrats replace a 16,000 Conservative majority with an 8,000 majority of their own, has sparked a panic among Tories sitting for similar seats.
‘You can’t overstate the rage of southern MPs at the moment,’ says one ‘blue wall’ Tory. ‘Whatever their gripe is, it is why we lost Chesham and Amersham.’ There is a view among southern Conservatives that northern seats have been getting No. 10’s attention because their MPs shout louder. One speculates that they need ‘a southern version of Jake Berry’, the pugnacious leader of the Northern Research Group.
In Chesham and Amersham, the Lib Dems campaigned heavily on their opposition to the government’s planning reforms, so their victory has intensified concerns about the proposals on the Tory benches. One PPS admits that he has ‘never seen anything like’ the rebellion brewing on the issue. Some of it is opportunistic. ‘Lots of people who are not personally well-disposed to the idea of planning reform are using Chesham and Amersham to gain leverage over the government,’ complains a loyalist.
An aspect of the Lib Dem campaign that particularly struck home was the claim that the planning reform would mean there would be some individual developments that residents won’t be able to object to. The whips are indicating to MPs that there will probably be movement on this point when the bill is finally published.
The Tories must be careful, though. A failure to sort out Britain’s dysfunctional planning system would simply store up problems. If getting on the housing ladder becomes increasingly unrealistic for all but the wealthiest young people in the south east then, to adapt Chris Patten’s phrase, the facts of life will cease to be Conservative.