Boris Johnson has dismissed as "bizarre" the suggestion that his government was neglecting voters in the south of England after the Liberal Democrats overturned a big Conservative majority in a spectacular byelection victory.
Liberal Democrat Sarah Green overturned a Conservative majority of 16,000 in Chesham and Amersham, a seat that had elected Tory MPs exclusively since it was created in 1974.
Ms Green won 21,517 votes, almost 57 per cent of the total, with a 25 per cent swing from the Conservatives, giving her a majority of 8,028 over Tory candidate Peter Fleet, who won 13,489 votes. The Greens came third with 1,480 votes, with Labour's candidate losing her deposit with just 622 votes, 1.6 per cent of the total and the party's worst-ever byelection result.
Mr Johnson claimed that local circumstances were responsible for his party’s defeat and defended his “levelling up” agenda, which aims to shift resources to the midlands and the north of England.
“I won London twice, so I think I was elected in Henley twice, and you know, we just last month had gains in Basildon, Maidstone, Basingstoke and all over the place,” he said. “So we are a great one-nation party and we will continue with our mission to unite and level up because that is the best way to deliver jobs, prosperity across the whole country.
“There were particular circumstances there and we are getting on with delivering our agenda for the whole country. That’s what one nation Conservatism is all about.”
Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said the election would send a message to the whole country that the Conservatives, who have cultivated former Labour voters in the so-called red wall, could not take traditional supporters in the south for granted.
“This is a great result, a huge swing to us. There are many Conservatives across the country who are now worried,” he said.
“People have been talking about a red wall – well, after Chesham and Amersham and Sarah Green’s victory, they’ll be talking about a blue wall.”
The byelection campaign in the Buckinghamshire constituency, which is in London’s commuter belt, was dominated by local opposition to HS2, a high-speed rail line that will run through it, and to planning reforms that will make it easier to build housing developments regardless of local sentiment.
Former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers said government ministers needed to reflect on what caused the dramatic election upset and to rethink their approach to planning reform.
“Their Planning for the Future white paper proposes big changes, including removal of local decision-making in areas designated for growth. Even outside those areas, many development policies currently determined locally would be centralised and set nationally instead; removing important safeguards used by local planning committees to prevent overdevelopment and protect their local environment,” she wrote in the Daily Telegraph.
“This byelection result should pave the way for a reduction in housing targets for the London suburbs and the southeast. We need a fairer distribution of new homes across the country, rather than seeking to cram so many thousands more into the crowded south.”