The Conservative party faces a war on two fronts at next year’s general election. It faces a resurgent Labour in the north of England along the so-called Red Wall, traditionally working-class seats that flipped to the Tories in Boris Johnson’s 2019 triumph.
In the south, it faces a different problem. The Liberal Democrats are trying to storm the Blue Wall, a series of once-safe Conservative seats in affluent areas that are mostly, but not exclusively, clustered around London’s edge.
Defending these bastions of red and blue, the Tories risk getting caught in a political pincer attack.
The mood at the Liberal Democrats conference in Bournemouth in recent days has been one of guarded optimism among its members that the Blue Wall could produce serious gains for the party, which was almost obliterated in 2015 following a five-year stint in coalition government.
The point was quite literally hammered home to journalists covering the conference at the weekend. Journalist welcome packs contained a Lego blue wall and mini yellow hammer, echoing one of party leader Ed Davey’s media stunts.
The reason for the optimism is twofold. First, the Lib Dems have already taken four seats in byelections since 2021, overturning enormous Conservative majorities in each case. The Lib Dems have scored brilliant byelection victories in Somerton and Frome in Somerset, following the departure of Tory MP David Warburton in a drugs and sex scandal; Tiverton and Honiton in Devon; Chesham and Amersham in Buckinghamshire; and North Shropshire in the midlands.
The second reason for optimism among Lib Dem members is that the very policies, such as harsh immigration policies and a rollback of environmental measures, that the Conservative Party is using to boost its position in the working-class Red Wall constituencies tend to damage it in the Blue Wall, where many voters are moderate one-nation types, worried about the climate.
A packed-out lunchtime fringe event at the Lib Dem conference on Monday heard from Monica Harding, the party’s candidate in a flagship Blue Wall target, Esher and Walton in Surrey. This is the well-to-do, semi-rural seat held by former deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab, who is stepping down at the election after resigning from office after bullying allegations were upheld by an independent investigation.
In the 2019 election, the Lib Dems hacked back Raab’s majority from about 23,000 votes to less than 3,000. Esher and Walton voted Remain in the Brexit referendum, while Raab was an arch-Brexiteer. Rejoining the European Union is still official policy of the Liberal Democrats.
Harding feels that the Conservative party’s recent lurch away from green policies could help her campaign over the line in the election next year.
“Tory voters in our area say they haven’t moved away from the Conservative party. The Conservatives have moved away from them,” she said.
Harding said prime minister Rishi Sunak has recently tacked towards the “hero voters” of the Red Wall. “But he has left behind the Blue Wall voters,” she said. To capitalise in the election battle ahead, all the talk at the Lib Dem conference is of how the party is prioritising the “ground war” of hyperlocal campaigning, instead of focusing on the “air war” of big-picture national messaging, where it is often crowded out by the Tories and Labour.
There is not unanimous support for this strategy among the Lib Dems. Some delegates in Bournemouth complained about conceding the airwaves to bigger rivals. But ultimately, whether it shatters the Blue Wall with an air or a ground attack will matter little to Liberal Democrats, as long as the party gets the job done.