Saturday, January 28

Watch for a political earthquake in middle England, as Liz Truss breaks up the Tory bedrock | Gaby Hinsliff

Deep in the rolling hills of the Surrey commuter belt lies a narrow, winding lane overhung with trees. Halfway down the bridleway that leads off it, Sarah Godwin points out the barn one of her farming neighbors has converted into a wedding venue. Brides and grooms use this unspoilt view, over grazing sheep and ancient woodland to the beauty spot of Hascombe Hill, as the backdrop for wedding photographs. But soon, that view might include an oil well.

thissummer, ministers granted permission for exploratory drilling here, overruling objections from the Conservative-controlled county council and local Conservative MP Jeremy Hunt.

What is proposed just outside the village of Dunsfold isn’t frackingsince it doesn’t involve fracturing rock by pumping water through at high pressure, although hackles still rose locally when Liz Truss lifted the national ban on fracking last week.

Villagers already rattled by plans to build 1,800 houses nearby now fear tankers rumbling down their narrow roads, pollution and potential impacts on house prices and the landscape. But they’re also baffled by the logic of drilling for oil in a climate crisis. “We need to be looking at ways to cut back on fossil fuels, not spending time and money getting more out of the ground,” says Godwin, a veteran of Greenpeace protests in her native New Zealand and co-founder of the action group Protect Dunsfold, now seeking a judicial review of the drilling decision. UK Oil & Gas has offered the village a cut of the profits if it hits oil. But in affluent areas like this, does money trump peace of mind?

The illuminating thing about the deal on offer to Dunsfold – painful upheaval now, in return for vague promises of riches later – is that it’s the one Truss is effectively now offering the whole country. In pursuit of growth that may never come, she has crashed the pound and forced up borrowing costs at a time when many are mortgaged to the hilt – especially in places like Surrey, where a post-lockdown exodus from London inflated an already overheated market.

Some City commuters on the morning trains from Godalming may benefit from her top rate tax cut but the mayhem unleashed in the process threatens the pensions, share portfolios and property wealth on which middle England is built. Boris Johnson’s behavior may have embarrassed Tory voters but Truss is essentially fracking her own vote, driving deep into Tory bedrock. The pollsters YouGov now give Labor an eye-watering 33-point lead over the Tories.

Hunt insists his constituents haven’t taken against Truss as they ultimately did against Johnson, and cautions against reading too much into market volatility. But what his voters want to hear from next week’s Tory party conference, he says carefully, is that there’s a long-term plan for growth, public services and low taxes they can trust. “I fully accept that that’s a necessary condition for the election of a Conservative government,” he says. “That’s why people vote Conservative, it’s because we are trusted on the economy.” His is, he warns, the kind of constituency “where people will vote Conservative if they think Conservatives are working hard enough for their vote”, but won’t be taken for granted. A marginal when he inherited it in 2005, Hunt expects it to be highly marginal next time round.

For in his South West Surrey seat and Dominic Raab’s Esher and Walton, plus neighboring Guildford and Woking, the Lib Dems are snapping closer to Tory heels.

Seats like this only really wobble in a crisis, as happened in the mid-1970s after economic turmoil under Ted Heath, and in the 1990s after the last sterling crisis. The combination of economic chaos and threats to the green belt is theoretically a gift to them. But is it enough to collapse the “blue wall”, that small but strategically important set of Tory-held seats where Labor can’t win but the Lib Dems just might?

Neil Sherlock, a former adviser to Nick Clegg, fought South West Surrey for the Lib Dems in 1992. He remembers the thrill of feeling the tide running his way, until the last few days when voters suddenly got cold feet. “They’d say, ‘I’d love to vote for you, but we’re not having that Neil Kinnock’,” he recalls. The Lib Dems thrive under opposition leaders who don’t scare their voters, a description that increasingly fits Keir Starmer. But still, though they came within a few hundred votes of snatching South West Surrey in 2001, it’s always hovered just beyond reach.

The new Lib Dem candidate for the constitution is Paul Follows, the energetic leader of Waverley borough council. He cites the biggest local issues as oil exploitation (the council is challenging the Dunsfold decision in court) and the cost of living. People who have never previously needed help are turning up at Godalming’s community food store – less a food bank than what his local Labor colleague Richard Ashworth calls a “supermarket without a till” – while fellow Godalming Green councilor Clare Weightman worries about “aspirational” lives built on cheap credit that’s suddenly not cheap. The twist in the tale this time, however, lies in the way Follows, Ashworth and Weightman meet me jointly to explain it.

Hunt’s majority shrank from over 28,000 in 2015 to 8,817 in 2019 not because the Tory vote crumbled – it barely blinked – but because the anti-Tory vote got its act together. Neither the Greens nor a previously popular independent stood against Follows at the last general election. Under a grassroots pact brokered by the local branch of the Compass thinktank, which promotes progressive alliances, Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens stood aside for each other in Waverley borough council seats where the progressive vote would otherwise be split; Follows now heads a rainbow coalition from which genuine friendships have seemingly blossomed. (Follows keeps a box of Lego in his office from him to entertain Weightman’s three-year-old, while Ashworth jokes that the main bone of contention between them is that he’s a pacifist, while Follows works in the defense industry.)

Increasingly, local activists help each other out – yellow-rosetted volunteers delivering Green leaflets are not unusual – and Weightman says voters appreciate the lack of squabbling. The alliance they’re describing, built from bottom up not top down and helpfully under the radar, make calls for a formal Lib-Lab pact look almost old-fashioned.

That doesn’t, of course, guarantee it will deliver general election seats. Truss theoretically still has time to change economic course, difficult as it is to see her abandoning the concept on which her leadership is founded. Floating voters may yet lose their nerve about Labour. But could something seismic be building beneath middle England? If not now, it’s hard to see when.

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