It used to be said that if you put a donkey on the ballot paper in Chesham and Amersham and stuck a blue rosette on its hind quarters it would still win.
Not any more. For the first time since its formation in 1974, the Conservatives have lost a Parliamentary seat once regarded as naturally theirs.
In a result which has sent shockwaves through Westminster, the Liberal Democrats overturned the Tories’ 16,000 majority to win by 8,028 votes in the two previously true blue Chiltern towns and their surrounding villages.
And it didn’t take long to establish the reason for this political earthquake.
It was HS2 wot lost it.
At a glance | HS2
Talking to voters in Chesham town centre on Friday morning, there was barely suppressed fury at the Government’s decision to press ahead with the high speed rail link they regard as cutting a swathe through their local countryside.
Adding fuel to the anger are fears that ministers are planning to ease restrictions on building on the green belt, which residents say would destroy much that is attractive about the area.
Tanya Allsop, a retired teacher in her 50s from the consituency village of Ballinger, told The Telegraph: “What we’re talking about is nothing less than the rape of the Chilterns. HS2 and any easing of building on the green belt will devastate the countryside around here.
“Building on the high speed rail link is already causing destruction as well as road closures and huge disturbance.
“I’ve voted Conservative pretty much my whole life but this time I went Lib Dem. I just felt I had to register my opposition to what’s happening to the environment around here and I know many, many people who feel the same and changed their vote from Conservative to the Liberal Democrats.”
Amersham by-election 2021 results
During the by-election campaign environmental activists found a sympathetic reception for their long standing warnings that HS2 meant major disruption. Indeed local roads are clogged with low loaders ferrying diggers and earth-moving equipment to HS2 construction sites along once verdant valleys. Tunnels, embankments, cuttings and viaducts are already being carved along the Chilterns section of the line, between Chesham and Great Missenden.
Locals says construction work is already generating noise, dust and mud on the roads. The Chilterns Conservation Board estimates that 12 million cubic metres of spoil will be produced from the tunnels and construction works – far more than can be absorbed on other parts of the line.
On top of that, numerous and recurrent road closures around the towns of Amersham and Chesham, a result of work on the new route, have caused severe inconvenience in an area where people rely on their cars to get to work, shops and leisure facilities.
Dodging the rain in Chesham town centre – a place not used to heavy political squalls, save for occasional council rows over local planning applications – Roger Phelps, 79 and his wife Sarah, 72, echoed the deep anger at what they considered the Tories’ betrayal over HS2.
“They could have stopped it. They could have voted against it after the last election, but they pressed ahead with it,” said Mr Phelps, a retired company director and, back in his younger days, a former secretary of the Young Conservatives. “On top of that the release of restrictions on building on the green belt has really frightened people.”
“I stuck to the Conservatives, but I know a lot of people who switched or didn’t vote at all because they feel as if they’ve been taken for granted over this issue.
“Boris said it was too late to stop HS2, but they could have done. Instead they voted to plough ahead with it. People here are furious.”
Mrs Phelps added: “Our lovely countryside is being ripped apart by HS2 and I think the Conservatives completely underestimated the strength of feeling over that.”
Of course Thursday night’s result did not come completely out of the blue. In May the Liberal Democrats took control of Amersham Town Council from the Conservatives, in part as a result of anger of the high speed rail link and the threat to the green belt.
Liberal Democrats win in Chesham and Amersham
That anger is felt particularly deeply in villages such as South Heath and Ballinger, close to the route of HS2, where the landscape is scarred by tunneling and digging just yards from picturesque Chiltern fields, farms, cottages and manor houses.
Here banners have been draped along hedgerows near the entrance to the gargantuan constructions sites, proclaiming: “NHS not HS2” and “Stop HS2 destroying wildlife, nature and homes”.
Sasha Humphrey, 48, a media designer, said: “I’ve always voted Tory, but they’ve allowed HS2 to carve up the countryside around here when they could have stopped it. This is the first time I’ve switched to Lib Dems and so many of my friends have done the same thing.
“HS2 is a complete waste of money, especially at the moment with so many more people working from home, yet they are still ploughing ahead with it.”
Ray Payne, a professor of engineering who divides his time between Chesham and the University of Auckland, in New Zealand, said: “People around here don’t often vote for change, but they have done this time, and the reasons are quite clear. The Conservatives should pay attention to that.”
Chesham and Amersham reaction/comment
Former Tory voters in Chesham and Amersham have their say
Why did you vote for the Liberal Democrats?
The two key issues were HS2 and the proposed revisions to planning laws. The former Chiltern DC and neighbouring Beaconsfield are earmarked for hundreds of new houses without the necessary improvements to supporting infrastructure and locals feel they have no control over the process. Other contributory factors causing immense frustration included inaction over replacing flammable cladding, the preservation of the leasehold system governing existing flats that sucks money from flat owners like my daughter and dithering over border controls during a pandemic.
Primary reason was the destruction and disruption wrought upon us by HS2; failure to fix roads after years of false promises and excuses… We had to like or lump it. These issues have made everyone very angry here.
At a national level, I want a commitment to lower taxes. If the Conservative party no longer offers this, you may as well vote to make your constituency a marginal.
Do you feel Boris Johnson has taken you for granted?
Difficult to tell. He’s been busy with pandemic/Brexit etc.. Hope he will now return to traditional Tory values and not be scared/pushed off course.
Boris only serves Boris. The lack of debate and control of the media over the last 15 months is appalling.
Are you considering leaving or have you recently left the C&A Conservatives?
I will not rejoin the Tories until there is a significant change in their policies and attitudes or change their leader.
I have voted Conservative all my life until now. I won’t ever vote for them again.
The alternatives are too horrible to contemplate. Nor would any of the other parties cancel HS2 or lift the restrictions.
What would convince you to come back to the Conservatives?
New leader, competent Cabinet.
A cancellation of HS2 – re-greening the devastation, and proper rail investment for the North.
Get back to core conservative principles . Look after those that work , save and always do the right thing.