The Chesham and Amersham by-election is on Thursday. Thank God it’s almost here — hopefully then we can stop hearing any rubbish about how the Lib Dems are set to tear down the Conservatives’ ‘blue wall’ in the home counties. As the campaign has demonstrated, the Lib Dems are miles away from being able to cause such an upset.
This by-election is to some extent the undercard for the Batley and Spen by-election in two weeks’ time, that one possibly deciding the fate of Keir Starmer. Nothing so existential is on the line in Buckinghamshire this Thursday. But only because a party that just six years ago had 57 MPs and a seat in government has fallen so far already.
The current Lib Dems are a party for nothing and no one. They worked hard to become the anti-Brexit party only to ditch this signature policy after the 2019 general election. Given any anti-Brexit hope has been extinguished by the result of that election, you might think this was a sound idea on their part. That is, until you ask yourself who else but fanatically pro-EU individuals would bother to vote Lib Dem these days? In other words, they stopped being the anti-Brexit party, which was at least something, to become a completely nebulous entity instead. This has hurt them in their bid to win Chesham and Amersham.
For instance, here is an actual campaign email sent out to Lib Dem activists to engage them with the by-election:
“As we’ve repeatedly seen, dramatic results dominate the national media for weeks. Dramatic results dominate the national media for days. Media narratives take hold as truth. And these truths can alter politics for years to come.By-election results hold so much power. So if you're angry and baffled by Boris Johnson's electoral success, here is our opportunity to change the game. Become one of the people who can turn Chesham and Amersham from a small political footnote by-election, to a result that can do to Boris Johnson what Hartlepool did to Labour.
Beyond the fact that it states that ‘dramatic results’ can dominate the national media for weeks before immediately downsizing this to mere days in the very next sentence, this is a great insight into current Lib Dem thinking. The delusion that a Lib Dem win on Thursday can ‘change the game’. That losing Chesham and Amersham would be the same for Boris Johnson as Hartlepool was for Keir Starmer when losing by-elections is actually a completely normal thing for governing parties.
One of the Lib Dems few policy commitments is opposing HS2, broadly unpopular in the seat since the line will cut through the constituency. This is a poor decision for two reasons. One is that Cheryl Gillan was known locally for being anti-HS2, so all it does is remind people they had a local Tory champion on the issue. Secondly, the Lib Dems supported it in their 2019 general election manifesto. If Covid has changed their minds, all right, but Chesham and Amersham, where there is an obvious advantage to being anti-HS2, is the only place I’ve heard anything about a shift in Lib Dem policy on a fairly vital issue. As a result, it comes across as an empty gesture; more Lib Dem leaflet fodder to put beside dodgy bar charts.
After they lose, the Liberal Democrats will almost certainly come out of Thursday’s contest bleating about how much it demonstrates the need for a ‘progressive alliance’ of non-Tory parties. In other words, they will make the case for the party being even blander and more non-defined, all to try and fit in with some alliance of parties that does not exist and almost certainly never will. By-elections in places like Chesham and Amersham should have the Tories ruffled; in trying to please their new northern vote, the party might lose chunks of the home counties. But the Conservatives aren’t worried and for good reason — the Liberal Democrats are about as lost as the Labour party is right now, desperately clutching for a way to connect with the electorate.
While there isn’t an immediate course for Labour to take, what the Lib Dems should do is obvious to anyone who isn’t an activist or MP. There is a big-spending, big-state Conservative party battling with a Labour party that wants more of the same, only with some factional infighting thrown in. There is a huge gap for an actual liberal party, one that could take seats like Chesham and Amersham and force the Tories to fight on two fronts.
Instead, the Lib Dems will lose on Thursday, most likely fairly badly, and they will have no one to blame but themselves. If they want to get back to being the by-election masters of old, they will have to do a lot better than this.