The biggest challenge facing the Conservative Party is not just the growing question of who leads it but also where in the country it can build an electoral majority. Put simply: is the future heart of conservatism likely to be in Southern home counties or in the post-industrial towns of the North and Midlands? The answer will determine Boris Johnson’s future if he remains Prime Minister, or frame the ensuing leadership race if he is ousted.
Recent by-elections have led some to fear that conservatism overreached itself in 2019. In three by-elections in little more than six months – Chesham and Amersham, North Shropshire and Old Bexley and Sidcup – the Conservatives jettisoned almost 60,000 votes from their 2019 high-water mark and lost two seats that had never before failed to return a Tory MP. The results led to speculation of the collapse of “Blue Wall” Tory heartland seats, similar to the break up of Labour’s Red Wall in 2019. Tomorrow’s local elections, where the party could take a battering in London, may further entrench this narrative.
Conservative MPs in the South are, not unreasonably, jittery. But by-elections and mid-term local elections are a poor proxy for general elections. Applying the same techniques that identified the “Red Wall” to today’s electorate does not reveal the conditions for a similar geographic correction in 2024 without a huge swing away from the Conservatives. There is simply no cluster of seats in the South of England where the Conservatives overperform demographic expectations in the way Labour did in parts of the North and Midlands before 2019. The “Blue Wall” is a mirage.
If anything, nervousness about the South has obscured the Conservatives’ remaining opportunity in the North. Of the 87 constituencies Onward’s model identifies as battleground seats at the next election, 51 are in the North of England. Of these, 36 mostly Labour constituencies could turn blue based on demographic indicators alone, barring any national swing. Seats like Wansbeck, Hemsworth and Doncaster North could all return Tory MPs for the first time since the Second World War if the gap closes between the two main parties. By contrast, of the 19 battlegrounds in the South only a dozen appear at risk for the Conservatives and some, like Hendon and Chingford, are already marginal.
This is not to say the South will be safe forever. Once “True Blue” counties like East Sussex and Cambridgeshire have been drifting away from the Conservatives for thirty years. Since Brexit, Buckinghamshire, Surrey and Oxfordshire have started to follow suit. As their electorates become younger, better educated and less likely to own their homes, they will continue to do so. Towering majorities in strongholds like Maidenhead and Witney could be completely eroded over successive electoral cycles.
But the action next time will be in the North and the Midlands, where the Tory tide has been rising steadily for decades. In 1983, Staffordshire and Shropshire were ranked 33rd and 27th for Conservative vote share among English counties. Today they are ranked 4th and 5th. Both returned a clean sweep of blue rosettes in 2019. Humberside, Northumberland, Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire are all riding a similar wave of rising conservatism. Here, not Surrey, is the heart of the future Conservative Party.
This continuing realignment has obvious implications for policy, personnel and campaigns. You do not target Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford or Wolverhampton South East with a manifesto of supply side reforms and corporation tax cuts. The message needs to be relentlessly trained on bread and butter issues – well-paid jobs, the NHS, lower crime and immigration – and doubling down on the promise to “level up” opportunity and civic pride in places where they are scarce.
Of course, if the tide goes out on the Conservative vote, as in 1997 and some polls suggest it may be happening today, these calculations will become academic. Partygate is taking a toll and price inflation is only starting to bite. But it’s easy to forget just how steep the hill is that Labour has to climb to win an outright majority. Unless, of course, the Conservatives pursue the wrong strategy.
In 2024, the Conservatives will try to secure an unprecedented fifth consecutive term in office. The data is clear. They must lean into their new heartlands if they want to achieve it.