Whenever the government faces criticism, one of the first questions commentators ask is whether the latest fiasco will have cut through in the “red wall”. While the red wall does indeed represent one substantial and important element in the Conservative coalition, this focus understates the problem the party faces, by suggesting there is just one restive set of seats they need to keep onside.
In fact, the Tory coalition incorporates a number of different battlegrounds, with vastly different needs. This makes the government’s task far harder – pleasing the red wall often means provoking anger in other equally important areas.
We can divide Conservative seats into groups based on their electoral context: is the seat marginal? How long has it been marginal? Does it lean towards leave or remain? Who is the local opponent? If we define the red wall seats as newly competitive constituencies with Labour as the local opponent in leave-voting areas, then there are about 70 of these spread across England and Wales.
Traditional swing seats might get less attention but they are just as numerous and count the same towards the outcome. There are at least 50 seats in this category, market towns and “swingy” suburbs whose mixed demographics reflect the nation, and where party control has shifted over many cycles on the ebb and flow of national opinion. They will be as competitive as ever next time.
The Brexit realignment that turned the red wall blue has also had implications elsewhere. There are now about two dozen Conservative seats in remain areas facing a credible Labour challenge, and another 30 also in largely remain areas where the Conservatives need to fend off resurgent Liberal Democrats. This “remain wall” includes many former safe seats where the Tory majority has been slashed since Brexit.
Lost seats in the traditional swing areas are a certainty if the government’s popularity falls. But if these are combined with substantial losses on either of the new fronts, the Conservative majority is immediately at risk. The government therefore cannot afford to alienate either the red wall or the remain wall.
But these seats are poles apart. The red wall is clustered in the Midlands and the north; the remain wall in the south. Red wall seats are working class and graduate light; remain wall seats are middle class and graduate heavy. Red wall seats have low house prices and more voters in council housing; remain wall seats have expensive housing and high home ownership rates.
This divide in outlook and priorities stretches beyond the electoral battleground: many of the 200 or so (currently) safe Conservative seats resemble one of the new battlegrounds, and their MPs will often align with less secure colleagues.
The two new fronts the Conservatives must defend are different worlds, at odds over the government’s domestic policy agenda. Ambitious levelling up investment is what red wall voters want to see; remain wall voters fear higher tax bills will follow. Masses of new, affordable homes are a dream for red wall renters, but a nightmare for remain wall homeowners, for whom the nimby instinct runs deep.
Even the fate of Boris Johnson himself splits the battlegrounds: the prime minister’s distinctive appeal in the red wall would be hard to replace, but Tories in the remain wall would breathe easier with a more traditional figure in charge.
It is no wonder the MPs in these two new battlegrounds object so regularly and loudly to their own government. Their job is to represent their constituents’ interests, and they are emboldened by the knowledge that their leader regularly reverses course under pressure. Johnson has no hope of pleasing MPs on both fronts, yet his constant caving to rebellions brings its own risks, intensifying the perception of a chaotic and rudderless government. Nor can the Conservatives avoid fights by sitting on their hands – the impatient red wall voters, promised “levelling up” and “unleashing Britain’s potential”, have low trust in politics, no inherent love for the Conservative party, and will not accept second best.
Having raised hopes of radical domestic reform, the Conservatives now face a difficult choice: plough ahead and risk defeat on one front, or back off and risk a beating on another. Getting Brexit done, it turns out, was the easy part.