Waking up yesterday morning in leafy Buckinghamshire I had 132 emails from residents and friends, and even more WhatsApp messages. I dared not check Facebook or Twitter. The Lib Dems had overturned a 16,000 majority and secured an 8,000-vote victory in true blue Buckinghamshire – how on earth had this happened?
Naturally, Twitter is full of commentators pontificating. Lib Dems are crowing about their victory while still trying to make sense of it. But despite having no involvement in the campaign, it was Dominic Cummings who actually did the best job of explaining it with his plea to ignore the “pundit babble” and focus on facts.
Well, here are the facts: we have excellent Conservative representatives working extremely hard for the constituency. I know because I have sat in countless meetings with them as a community representative. They are passionate about the area, fight for better funding and deal with impossible situations given to them by 10 Downing Street, not least High Speed 2.
The fact none of these wonderful representatives were considered or picked as a candidate is your first fact. Instead we were “given” Peter Fleet. We never met him, he never attended any community meetings. Who was he? He claimed to be a local but had lived in Germany and Thailand for years. He knew nothing about High Speed 2. Then the penny dropped – despite knowing little about this enormous project, our candidate just wanted to ‘get HS2 done’. You could not have designed a worse message heading into a by-election like this.
Just how big an issue Is HS2 in the constituency? For a project supported by the Conservatives in 2010, it didn’t seem to affect Dame Cheryl in 2015, 2017 or 2019. So why would it affect the constituency now and were there any warnings that CCHQ ought to have heeded?
The reason Dame Cheryl hadn’t suffered from HS2 opposition is that she was herself among the doughtiest opponents of the line. She resigned as a minister to fight against HS2 and maintained her opposition to the end. She attended community meetings with HS2, including one just a few weeks before her untimely death. As the tributes after her death showed very clearly, she was loved by many and respected by most.
By contrast, nobody knew Peter Fleet and he certainly wasn’t speaking our language. We had been fighting HS2 for almost 11 years, he wanted to get it done.
Bear in mind too that until 2020, HS2 was a project on paper. Then, suddenly, construction started and much of the constituency was turned into a building site. HS2 Ltd continued the intransigent belligerent bullying we had all become so familiar with, but this time it wasn’t on paper, it was on our roads and in our woodlands and fields. Despite the huge controversy of the project, Andrew Stephenson, the minister in charge of HS2, did not even meet with our community representatives to discuss the situation. As for HS2 themselves, they didn`t care about impacts to our community, damage to the aquifer where we source our water nor impacts on our ancient woodlands, chalk streams and oak trees. Peter Fleet didn’t seem to care either.
That brings us to our next important fact. Amersham Town Council had many excellent Conservative representatives who ignored HS2 until it was too late. The Local Anti-HS2 action group tried to get them to wake up to the local issues, they got involved too late and, lo and behold, the Lib Dems swept the Town Council.
I had first-hand experience of all this as chairman of Hyde Heath Village Society, based in a sleepy Buckinghamshire village equidistant from Chesham and Amersham. I knew our wonderful Parish chairman was spending hours upon hours of his time helping exasperated local residents with the impact of High Speed 2. On the ground we knew it was a major issue and we knew local people were losing faith in the Conservative Party.
By the time the top brass got wind of what was going on in it was far, far too late. A week before the election word got around that the party was in danger of losing one of its safest seats. You know things are getting desperate when little Hyde Heath gets a visit from both Michael Gove and George Eustice, then Rishi Sunak and Theresa May turn up in Chesham, followed by the PM himself.
But we could already see people turning to the Lib Dems. Aside from their aggressive campaigning, Sarah Green was talking about holding HS2 to account. There are other issues, of course: local planning, protecting the green belt and cuts to public service cuts – but HS2 is a universal language in Buckinghamshire. If Peter Fleet’s campaign slogan had been “HS2, Where`s my Pitchfork?”, he would probably have won handily. Instead he followed the party line. That is your final and most telling fact about this by-election.
We’re under no illusion that this emphatic defeat will do anything to change the Government’s mind on High Speed 2, regardless of the ridiculous and ever-increasing cost of the project.
For all that Boris Johnson may want to build blue walls further north, there is an expensive blue high-speed line here in the south-east that we didn’t want and certainly don’t want to pay for. By all means send Buckinghamshire tax up north, but treat this election as a cautionary tale. There are 38 Conservatives constituencies affected by this project, construction will be starting in them soon and Ed Davey has just ordered some more orange bricks!
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