Amersham Old Town is calmly beautiful: a tourist’s imagining of an English town, not a venue for something as vulgar as politics. On the Saturday before the by-election it sags under heat as residents sit outside independent coffee shops in their uniform of blue shirt and ironed shorts (men) and pale linen dresses (women).
This is the land of plenty at the end of the Metropolitan Line. The charity shop has a wedding hat section. There is a bespoke gentleman’s tailor and a town museum, so you can investigate Amersham’s plenty of yore. The Britain in Bloom awards are stacked vertically on a post by the Old Market. These golden discs, and the pride in the physical perfection of Old Amersham that they convey, are an indication that Boris Johnson’s luck might sag there this year. Is the Prime Minister conservative enough for Amersham Old Town? They doubt his dedication to their bloom. These are visual lands: you see it in the costumes, the cars, the homes, and the rage against HS2, currently being hewn into the hill beyond their paradise. They hate HS2 with the fervour of children because they usually have their way in everything, and in that is the possibility of rebellion.
If Amersham Old Town is in denial about it being 2021 — it is largely medieval with fiercely repointed Georgian frontage — so are most of its voters. I wonder if the residents consider the Chiltern Hills to be an extension of their gardens; they are enraged about HS2 because it will benefit the Midlands and the North and leave them and their excellent transport connections with a glut they did not seek. Benjamin Disraeli similarly courted the working classes from nearby Hughenden Manor, but perhaps the descendants of his voters have forgotten this happy coalition of manor and slum. HS2 is the only teardrop spilling onto their plate, and this, not pandemic, is the story here. Pandemic was unfortunate, but they are vaccinated now, and the shops are open.
There is jeopardy for the Prime Minister, then: when Dame Cheryl Gillan, Conservative MP for Chesham and Amersham, died in April, a by-election was called, scheduled for Thursday. Gillan’s majority was immense, a blue hill in a land of hills: 16,223 in 2019, or 55.4% of the vote. If you listen to constituents the result was barely conscious. As a pub landlord says from behind his tidy bar: “I vote Conservative. If you ask me why I vote Conservative I couldn’t give you an answer.” He makes it sound like an existential question singular to Tory Buckinghamshire: “Why do I vote Conservative? I think the majority of people don’t really look into that much – of why they vote.” He tells me he was born to a working-class family in Wales — his Welsh-based family have “nothing” — lives in a £1 million house in Chesham Bois, drives a new Range Rover and educated his children at private schools. Then two elderly ladies come in for lunch, and we must stop talking, because he is busy spoiling them with a professionalism that looks like rapture. He has been working since 5am — he works hard — and he is almost the most analytical voter I meet, but this election is about flowers and potholes.
The Tory majority is vast, but the Liberal Democrats sense an opportunity to beat the new Conservative candidate, one Peter Fleet, formerly of the Ford motor company. His centre of operations is a flat above an award-winning iron mongery in Amersham; from here he rides out to promise mitigation of the impact of HS2, a national park in the Chiltern Hills and a crack-down on anti-social behaviour (he is against it).
To combat him, there are 500 Liberal Democrat activists in Chesham and Amersham, placing banks of posters near notorious potholes. It is uncanny, and I wonder if they are consulting psychologists. Hit a pothole and you see a Liberal Democrat poster or, more likely, four Liberal Democrat posts. “The roads,” I am told by an upper-middle-class woman, “are shit”. I fantasise their slogan changed to: “Potholes winning here.”
Opposition parties do well in by-elections, and there is rage with the liberalisation of the planning laws, which I think is the equivalent of Total War in Nimby-land.
There is a theory that for each brick he removes from the Red Wall, Boris Johnson loses a third of a brick, or maybe more, from the Blue Wall, as businessmen voters fantasise about which lie they would fire him for, and liberal-leaning voters flee London for the Home Counties, taking their Remain politics and rustic fantasies with them. These fantasies are helpful to Liberal Democrats, if irritating: what is the point of living in a village where everyone looks like Philip Green? Where be the cows?
I hear that after a bad poll the previous week, Johnson made a surprise visit to the constituency. The Liberal Democrats were second in 91 seats in 2019 and took Amersham Town Council in May. They wonder if this by-election is the beginning of a recovery; of a Conservative rebellion against itself. Amersham Old Town is quite the place to stick it to the man, his optics — last week he was gambolling in the Cornish surf and toasting Peter Fleet with a pint — and his national polling average of 44%.
I meet the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Green in a coffee shop in Amersham. Amersham is not Amersham Old Town. It does not have a bespoke gentleman’s tailor, or a personal museum. I watch an attempted burglary of a post office, just opposite the Conservative campaign office. The postmaster chases the villain with a baseball bat. No one is injured.
Green is young, open, emphatic. “People feel ignored,” she says, “people feel taken for granted.” I heard that in Hartlepool, from Labour voters; here, I struggle not to laugh, which is slightly unfair because pain is pain. “It’s been true blue for decades – council, local, national. It’s like, ‘it’s always going to be blue so why should they listen to us?’ The idea that if you live in Tory area you get investment is manifestly not true. All the issues feed into that underlying theme of being taken for granted”. No one is exempt from self-pity nowadays; and so, a Liberal Democrat activist tells me, excited former Tories are stopping her to say, “I’m voting for Sarah!” Another says she heard a group of “dyed-in-the-wool Tories” were surprised, on meeting in the pub, to discover they are all Liberal Democrats now, from a combination of, “planning changes, the way you just have to ring Bojo, bung him some money and you’ve won the business”. I wonder if Chesham and Amersham will surprise itself with its audacity tomorrow. It’s a by-election. The stakes are low. Even if they do elect a Liberal Democrat MP, their taxes will not rise. It will be a murder without blood.
Estate agents are too busy to talk — though one shouts over his shoulder that the Prime Minister wore the same tie to Amersham as he wore at the G7, and he has dandruff too, which matters in a village in bloom — but the man in the art gallery says: “There are an awful lot of people moving out [to here]. Every one of the flats here,” he points upwards “has gone on the market, with the exception of one. Every weekend I see people coming into the shop saying, ‘it’s fantastic round here, we want to move, we want a garden, we’ve been living in the city’”.
I meet such women in Chesham, which is a sadder Amersham Old Town; there is a foodbank with a request for sponge pudding and tinned chicken taped in the window. They are an NCT group; they sit by their babies’ prams, drinking large cocktails. They are from London, and vote Liberal Democrat here, though one voted Labour formerly — “I don’t think Labour know who they are [now]”. They are not angry about the Government’s response to pandemic: “I’m not sure how anyone would have handled it,” says one. But they are worried about child poverty, the future of the NHS, and the lack of affordable housing.
There is almost no Labour presence in this constituency, and the voters know it. Labour say they are campaigning, but the evidence is flimsy. (They are speaking to the press via email). Labour took 12.9% of the vote in 2019. I meet a Labour voter smoking on a bench. “They don’t bother round here,” she says, “it’s a shame. It’s [the political dialogue] all about Boris Johnson, and what he’s doing. It makes you laugh. It’s always about Boris”.
I don’t find the candidate Natasa Pantelic, a councillor in Slough, but I am sent a statement which includes the words: “This is an opportunity for change — a fresh start — for Chesham and Amersham. They [the Liberal Democrats] don’t care about progressive politics; they just care about power.” There is a Chilterns4ProgressiveAlliance group standing in the centre of Chesham “campaigning for opposition party cooperation in Chesham & Amersham, Batley & Spen and the next general election”. They are genial but they do not have the support of the opposition parties themselves, which is a maddening for them and pleasing to Boris Johnson.
Under these gentle currents is the possibility of future anguish. There is a Cassandra here: Brendan Donnelly, a former Conservative MEP who is standing for Rejoin EU. He sits outside a coffee shop in Chesham and tells me that Brexit will hit us like a thunderstorm soon enough; then the tarmac drives of the mighty Chalfonts will tremble. I watch a pro-Rejoin band perform with a toy cat (a “catidate” and member of Cats Against Brexit Mayhem) that stood in an election “and won more than 200 votes”. The vocalist sings: “Boris Johnson he said he swore he’d never leave me /and Boris Johnson said he swore he’d always love me.” Did he?
Donnelly and the ladies with cocktails aside, I meet few people who are prepared to voice anger about anything other than HS2 or potholes, and I am slightly stunned. So: the worst thing that might happen to Boris Johnson this summer is that he loses a by-election over potholes, and to the Liberal Democrats, with their 11 parliamentary seats and national polling average of 7%. Or that he nearly does. That does not sound like a crumbling blue wall. The political map is not that simple or beautiful.
As I prepare to leave Amersham Old Town, I go into a shop and look at a rack of clothes decorated with embroidered flowers. There is a live bee lurking at the hem of the dresses, disorientated by the flowers that are not real, and, I imagine, increasingly bereft and frightened. I wonder if the voters of Amersham Old Town will ever have a similar awakening.