On a sun-drenched common, supporters of Tory leadership candidate Penny Mordaunt, Andrew Wood and Jaspal Chhokar periodically pause as yet another truck from the HS2 rail project rumbles through a constituency that is home to one of Britain’s largest local Conservative parties.
While the scheme weighed heavily in the Tories’ byelection loss in neighbouring Chesham and Amersham – raising questions about the party’s so-called blue wall in southern England – the din is also a reminder here in Beaconsfield of the cocktail of factors that fuelled Boris Johnson’s downfall.
Although the future of the green belt in one of the most UK’s affluent regions has yet to feature in the race, it’s the sort of issue that could yet prove decisive if and when a final two candidates vie for the votes of members in the party’s heartlands.
For Chhokar – a local party official heavily involved in the byelection campaign where he and Wood concede that Johnson’s name played badly – fellow Brexiter Mordaunt is the candidate most likely to be able to re-establish their party in the one-nation tradition of the first Earl of Beaconsfield, Benjamin Disraeli.
Wood, mayor of nearby Gerrards Cross, identifies another yet another issue where he believes that members are eager for a rebalancing of priorities: “I think there’s a feeling here that the south has been left behind in the desire for the Conservatives to focus on the new gains in the north. There’s very much a feeling that we’d like the new prime minister to really look after the country as a whole rather than certain parts.”
Brexit meanwhile appears to be less – if at all – a dividing line in a constituency where it had once caused a local civil war in which the former MP, Dominic Grieve, was ousted by what he characterised as an “insurgency”.
But in a area where Waitrose branches, well kept high streets and enduring jubilee bunting project an outward image of prosperous southern contentment, divisions of another kind also appear to run relatively deep – this time cutting through those who had pushed for Brexit. Indeed, they were enough for an official in the local constituency office to issue a warning to members against speaking to the Guardian.
Among those refusing to remain silent was John Strafford, who said of the race: “This is a last chance for the party to get its act together because if it doesn’t then it’s going to lose the next election in a major way.”
Only a Kemi Badenoch, Liz Truss or – until she was knocked out – Suella Braverman leadership could save the Tories, maintained Strafford, who cited support for this view in a WhatsApp group of local members who feared what he described as a “stitch-up” involving Rishi Sunak or Penny Mordaunt.
The local party was down 20% on members in the years since the last leadership election, he also warned, due to the departure of many who believed Johnson had failed to deliver on promises of being a low-tax, small-state government. What had been delivered instead was a “wokey” platform around net zero and other issues.
“That sort of loss of people is pretty important because to fight a general election you need to have 1,000 members, which gives you about 100 activists. Otherwise you become incapable.”
It’s hard to quantify the true extent of traction such positions have among members. If there’s a flipside, it’s in the extent to which even members from different wings of the party were firmly in agreement about one thing – the need for a solid break from Boris Johnson.
Among three such members was Sandy Saunders, a former industrialist and veteran councillor who described himself as being “an old fashioned liberal conservative, perhaps even on the left of the party.” Despite having been opposed to Brexit, he was drawn to Mordaunt, adding: “I’m probably somewhat skewed towards her on account of having, like her, been in the forces, as well as being very impressed by her when came dinner here.”
Another, Jackson Ng, said meanwhile that as a councillor he knew Beaconsfield was an affluent town but people were still feeling the pinch. Three candidates – Truss, Sunak and Mordaunt – interested him in terms of what they had yet to say about solving the cost of living crisis.
He also questioned perceptions of the local party, and others in region: “It’s true that we’re in the shires, but we’re also very close to London and there’s increasingly a mix of people, including myself and Jaspal. We’re both lawyers whose parents came to this country and worked hard and we believe in certain core values.
“Penny interests a lot of us because she has the least baggage from the last two years.”
What would also be interesting, he added, would be how local MP Joy Morrissey – whose office told the Guardian that she could not comment on account of being a whip – declared, given her role as a Johnson loyalist.
July 15, 2022 at 03:06PM Ben Quinn