LITTLEWICK GREEN, England – George Blundell, 22 years old and a recent graduate, never expected to win when he ran in a local council election against a Conservative Party leader in a region long loyal to the Tories. But for a young, enthusiastic former political science student, it seemed worth a try.
“I was like ‘Well, what’s stopping me’? You don’t do that every day, do you?” recalled Mr Blundell, a member of the centrist Liberal Democrats, as he sipped a beer outside the village pub where he once did the dishes as a holiday job.
To his surprise, Mr Blundell is now a councilor representing the Littlewick Green area, having defeated the powerful incumbent in perhaps the biggest shakeup of local elections that have sent shockwaves through Britain’s ruling Conservative Party.
Disgruntled by Brexit and appalled by the economic chaos that erupted last year during Liz Truss’ brief leadership, traditional Conservative voters are abandoning the party in key English midlands, contributing to the loss of more than 1,000 council seats this month.
With general elections expected next year, that is alarming for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who has earned solid points as a problem solver and appears to have stemmed the party’s bleeding from Mrs Truss’s fiasco, but whose party nonetheless falls far short of the opposition. Labor Party in opinion polls.
In these affluent areas within reach of London – dubbed the ‘blue wall’ after the Conservatives’ campaign color – the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, rather than Labour, made big gains in this month’s local elections. But when the next general election comes around, the defection of Conservative Party voters could deprive Mr Sunak of a parliamentary majority and drive Labor leader Keir Starmer to Downing Street.
It could also be swept away by prominent parliamentary Conservatives – such as the Chancellor of the Treasury, Jeremy Hunt, and senior cabinet minister, Michael Gove – who hold seats in the Conservative Southern Midlands, as did the former Prime Minister, Theresa May, the Member of Parliament. for Maidenhead.
Robert Ford, a professor of political science at the University of Manchester, says they have only themselves to blame as many moderate Conservatives feel their party has let them down, rather than the other way around.
“Their Conservative Party was about stable government and low taxes, and watching over the City of London,” he said, referring to the financial district that many voters commute to here. “This Conservative government has delivered none of that.”
“Rishi Sunak showed up and said, ‘Don’t worry, I know we burned the house down for five years, but someone who isn’t an arsonist is in charge now,'” Professor Ford said. “Well, it’s not enough.”
To be sure, it proved inadequate in Littlewick Green, which, with its village pub, cricket ground and pavilion displaying British flags, is an unlikely site for a political uprising.
Yet Mr Blundell was so successful that when he joined a crowd of about 200 people celebrating the coronation of King Charles III, he greeted their newly elected representative with spontaneous applause.
Mr Blundell, who works as a training consultant for an education company, said he blushed so hard that “I actually turned into a human tomato”. He added, “I’ve known them all for a long time, and I want to do well with them and help them – even if it’s the smallest things.”
In this quintessential corner of ‘blue wall’ Britain, Mr Blundell lives with his siblings (he’s triplets) and Reverend Mother in a house once used as the setting by the creators of ‘Midsomer Murders’ , a TV detective program with gory crimes in picturesque English villages.
Mr Blundell attributes his victory to a combination of national politics, local factors and the complacency of local conservatives. The night of the count was “spectacular,” he added.
Simon Werner, the leader of the Liberal Democrats in Windsor and Maidenhead, thinks the success could be repeated in a general election. “The ‘blue wall’ is crumbling,” he said. “We’ve proven we can do it on a local basis and now we need to take it a step further and do it in the general election next year.”
In part, the events here represent the aftershocks of the polarizing leadership of Boris Johnson, who won a landslide general election victory in 2019 with the support of voters in deindustrialized areas in the north and center of England. But Mr Johnson’s bombastic, pro-Brexit rhetoric, disdain for business and focus on the recovery of the north of England have never endeared him to moderate conservatives in the south.
Most stayed with the Tories in 2019 as Labor was then led by left winger Jeremy Corbyn. But with the more centrist Mr. Starmer now firmly in charge, the prospect of a Labor government no longer frightens many traditional Tories, freeing them to let down the Conservatives.
Professor Ford added that for years the Tories had caricatured and pilloried their own supporters, with some Conservative politicians characterizing such voters as a privileged elite.
“If you tell people often enough that they are not welcome, eventually they will get the message,” said Professor Ford.
Even some Conservative lawmakers admit they are concerned about the appeal of the Liberal Democrats to these voters.
“Those traditional moderate conservatives for whom the world works really well – who were happy to be in the European Union because it worked for them – yes, I am concerned about bringing them back from the Liberal Democrats,” said Steve Baker, a government minister and legislature representing Wycombe, close to Windsor and Maidenhead.
There are also demographic factors at play as younger voters move out from London, a Labor stronghold, driven out by high property prices.
But local issues are also important. At Maidenhead Golf Club, which was founded in 1896, there is anger that the Conservative-controlled council has facilitated plans to build around 1,800 houses on the 132 acres of land the club leases – leaving the club in danger of becoming homeless.
Merv Foulds, a former club treasurer and lifelong Conservative voter, said he decided on Election Day not to join his wife at their polling place, adding: “If I had I wouldn’t have voted for Tory .”
Both locally and nationally, the Conservatives are seen as unreliable, he said, while Sunak has yet to prove himself convincing.
“Sometimes when he speaks, you just feel like he’s talking to you,” says Mr. Foulds, an accountant. “At least with Boris you felt he was talking to you – even though he may have been talking nonsense and may have been lying through the back of his teeth.”
In Woodlands Park, a less affluent area of Windsor and Maidenhead, Barbara Hatfield, a cleaner, said she had voted for different parties in the recent election but was concerned about increases in food prices and angry about development in the town center .
“Maidenhead is terrible, it’s like Beirut,” she said of the city where construction work has taken place, adding that she wasn’t sure how she would vote in a general election.
Another uncommitted voter is Mr Blundell’s mother, Tina Molyneux, who is a preacher in local churches and head of Discipleship and Social Justice in the Diocese of Oxford. She has her own theory of why her son was victorious.
“Everyone said, ‘Something has to change,'” she said. “There was something about youth and a fresh approach.”
Rev. Molyneux said she previously voted for Ms May, whom she still respects but will not support her in the general election because the Conservatives have “gone to the right”.