Can Dominic Raab cling on to Esher?

Published by UnHerd (9th December, 2019)

I met Liam Gallagher on the high street in Esher outside his tile shop. “Yes, that is really my name,” he told me with a weary smile. When I asked if we could talk about the looming election, he replied firmly that he knew precisely how he would be voting. He was a long-term Liberal Democrat supporter. He backed Remain in the Brexit ballot, then saw the unexpected result of the referendum devastate his business as consumer confidence fell alongside the pound, putting up prices of his Italian and Spanish tiles by 20%. He had been forced to close his other two studios and lay off 10 staff from a firm run by his family for 40 years.

“It’s been the hardest year of my life,” said Liam, 41, whose wife is from Chile. So you might presume it would be easy to predict how this struggling retailer would be voting? But no, not in this bizarre election. For, to my amazement — not least since we were standing in the constituency of one of the best-known Brexiteers and Liam believes Boris Johnson to be “a bit of a buffoon” — he told me he would be voting Tory on Thursday.

“It’s time to get Brexit sorted. I’m a Remainer but I run a business that relies on imports from abroad and we have got to get this done and dusted. I don’t want any more delay to this process that has made me suffer for so long.”

Our chat on a chilly December evening highlights the unpredictability of this political struggle as Brexit divides the country, reshapes parties and shakes the electoral kaleidoscope. Few constituencies show this better than Esher and Walton, where a recent poll suggested the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, holds just a 5% lead over the Liberal Democrats, despite winning a 23,298 majority two years ago.

This slice of suburban Surrey should be bedrock Britain for the Tories: the sort of place a donkey wearing a blue rosette would get elected. But as Johnson pivots his party towards disgruntled Labour voters in the Midlands and North, might they lose this seat stuffed with wealthy commuters in their southern heartland?

Monica Harding, the Liberal Democrat candidate, is convinced she is set for victory. “I really, really think I will win,” she said when we met in The Wheatsheaf pub. “People are really cross about Brexit. Most accepted the referendum result and then backed the Tories in 2017, expecting them to deliver it neatly. Now they see it has been a complete shambles.” It seemed significant, also, that Raab is keeping his head down and his team not letting journalists join them out campaigning. The Foreign Secretary, however, is optimistic of retaining his seat. “I am not sitting here biting my finger nails,” he told one friend.

It was not hard to find people who have deserted the Tories in Esher and Walton, a seat that strongly backed Remain and is home to 10,000 businesses. Yet while the curse of Brexit clings to this constituency, just as in all 649 others in this wretched election called to break the deadlock at Westminster, other big issues are bubbling beneath the surface. And not just the obvious ones of crime, hospitals, and schools causing concerns across the country. Changes taking place in the spillover suburbs that surround London present longer-term challenges. And that is why this wealthy heart of Surrey presents a warning to the Conservatives.

This is a place I used to knew well, having lived in Oxshott for the first 17 years of my life before my family moved to Sussex on the day Margaret Thatcher became prime minister. It was a firmly middle-class village set amid the prosperous Surrey commuter belt, an oasis of suburban middle-class dreams close to the capital filled with golf courses and tennis clubs. Men in pin-striped suits and bowler hats packed the trains to London in the morning, then teenagers filled them later to escape the embrace of cosy community and a stifling sense of conformity. There was an old-fashioned grocery store in the village, parties in the village hall — and I can still recall the excitement when the first Chinese and Indian restaurants arrived in the area.

The grocery store is still there, although now rebranded. Inside, I found Nish Patel, its 29-year-old boss who took over the shop with his brother earlier this year. This affable man, born in the Indian state of Gujarat, told me how he arrived in Britain 10 years ago, speaking no English and had already run another shop nearby. As he explained his plans to improve the store, I reflected how Patel embodied the energetic and entrepreneurial spirit of immigration. Yet, unexpectedly, he turned out to be a keen Brexiteer. “I am going to spend my life in this country so I want it to be safe,” he explained. “We need to know who is coming in and out. We have a lot of burglaries here.”

The streets remain tidy, the lawns clipped, the woods by the station full of friendly dog-walkers — but this is an area that has changed fast. There has been the usual suburban churn as old people move on and young families move in, seeking more space in homes and often a sanctuary from urban life in London. Many are from migrant backgrounds, like the Patels. I recall five years ago a Surrey councillor telling me there were 30 languages spoken in neighbouring Mole Valley, with ethnic minorities making up one in seven pupils in some primary schools. There is a mosque in Dorking, just down the road from the setting for that ultimate 70s suburban sitcom, The Good Life. What would Margot have said?

Statistics show that, unlike Patel, most ethnic minorities do not support the Tories. Yet this slice of Surrey has also become spectacularly wealthy. It is now filled with foreign billionaires, hedge fund chiefs and famous sports stars — including Chelsea players and their Russian owner, since the club’s training ground is in nearby Cobham. It is little surprise to find a study revealed Elmbridge pays the highest income tax in Britain. When I located my former home, it seemed almost the only one on the road that had survived rather than being replaced by a massive post-modern palace. At one neighbouring property, an interior design company was hanging Christmas tree lights on a tree by the front door. A worker said they charge £198 for the service — more than one-third of median weekly disposable income for British households.

Many residents live behind big gates and banks of cameras, corroding any sense of real community. “I canvass sometimes speaking on the entry phone to someone I can see at a window,” said one Lib Dem activist. Yet there are homeless people living in nearby woods, former council houses sell for seven-figure sums and far too few new houses are being built in a constituency that is almost two-thirds protected by Green Belt restrictions. These kinds of issues trouble even Tory voters and are storing up problems, whatever happens on Brexit.

I met Gareth Hughes, an 84-year-old former civil servant and oil engineer who has lived in Oxshott for half a century, by the village shops. Once we would have been almost neighbours — but he said he has seen big changes since my time. “We had one house opposite us knocked down, a family lived there, and then it was knocked down again and made bigger,” he said, adding that his own two children had been forced by high prices to live in other parts of the south-east. “This area was always prosperous but it has become much more wealthy and now none of our children can afford to live here.”

As this thoughtful man who once worked under Michael Heseltine said, what is the point of creating ‘affordable’ housing when the definition – 80% of average local market rates — puts it out of most people’s range? One study found Elmbridge, where there has been a sharp fall in numbers of younger people owning their homes and average properties cost almost £600,000, to be the hardest place outside London to get a foot on the housing ladder. Hughes has seen the legacy of such change with a weakening of communal institutions such as clubs and charity events — and while backing both Brexit and the Tories, takes a dim view of modern politicians. “They don’t seem to get anything done. They have been squabbling over Brexit and everything else seems to have been sidelined.”

This is probably the single point that unites the country — and many people in Esher hold Raab responsible as a key player behind the parliamentary paralysis. “No, I’m not voting for him ever again,” said one well-spoken man, declining to be named. “They can stuff their Brexit and the lot of them, they fucked up our country.”

Another middle-aged woman refused at first to tell me how she voted on Brexit after almost losing one of her best friends over the issue. “I’ve known her since we were 10. We are in such a sorry state of affairs, so I pledged never again to tell anyone how I voted.” Eventually she whispered that she was a Leaver on the basis I would not identify her.

A few minutes later I met Hugh Monro, a firm Remainer from Cornwall, who was attending a local school governors’ meeting but expressed the widespread despair over Westminster with unusual eloquence. “It is a pantomime,” he said. “If it wasn’t so important it would all be very funny. Instead we have a farce, written by Kafka but performed by the Marx Brothers.”

Such is the perplexing state of political flux. His new political party, the Lib Dems, claim to be attracting many richer voters who were nervous about inadvertently letting a tax-grabbing Marxist into Downing Street but now feel emboldened to back them after Jeremy Corbyn’s dismal campaign. Almost all Lib Dem voters told me they disliked their party’s stance on revoking Brexit. The Tories meanwhile, said they were picking up support in poorer parts, reflecting their focus on struggling citizens in the Midlands and North. “Voters are very negative about Corbyn,” said one source. “And while this constituency voted 58% Remain, that does not mean they do not respect how the rest of the country voted and that Boris managed to get a deal.”

London’s sprawling suburbia takes in chunks from four counties. Yet it is Surrey that best symbolises the great Brexit divide. The county is home to 11 Tory MPs who include some of the most prominent figures on both sides, from Leavers such as Raab and Michael Gove, through to Remainers such as former chancellor Philip Hammond and Sam Gyimah, who defected to the Liberal Democrats shortly after standing for the leadership. Seven months ago, the Tories lost their grip on four councils after a drubbing in local elections.

Brexit is not the only reason that southern seats could tilt from the Tories. As young families move in, Lib Dems surge after partially recovering from their post-coalition backlash, and Johnson shifts his party towards socially-conservative northern voters. “There is a general feeling that public services are not working for them and the Conservative brand has been tarnished,” said James Johnson, former Number Ten strategist who ran polling for Theresa May. “In future elections, this is going to be problematic. They are going for a short-term win that could have long-term repercussions.” He added that high-profile politicians such as Raab and Iain Duncan Smith in his suburban Essex seat were most at risk from tactical voting.

Even the most devout Corbynista would accept Esher and Walton is not their natural terrain — although I did find one possible Labour voter. “I’m fed up with the whole thing really,” said Katy Nursey, 35, an interior designer parking in Oxshott with her infant daughter Ava. “I work in London and see so many homeless people on the streets. It’s just awful.” She was worried also about the health service after hearing friends and family members complain about bad experiences. Later I met a Polish dental nurse who was selling her house to return home after 10 years living in Britain — one more sign of the intensifying staff crisis in health and social care.

Jane Drown, 60, a former management consultant who is backing the Lib Dems, said many local voters like her would happily pay a bit more in tax to boost public services but they despair over the extremism of both main parties. “Look at all these Four-Wheel Drive cars on the roads when there are people sleeping rough,” she said. “The big issue is inequality. Many people want to redress the balance but will not vote for Corbyn, who seems so old-fashioned and scares the shit out of this affluent middle-class area.”

I met her in a Costa cafe, shortly after talking to an Esher shop worker who could no longer afford to visit the local cinema — the same one that I used to cycle to on my Raleigh sports bike to see films such as Jaws and Star Wars with friends — following its makeover by the upmarket Everyman chain. “This is a constituency with two halves,” said Drown. “There are all those wealthy people in their gated developments but there are also people really struggling to make ends meet on benefits or low incomes. You need a lot of money to live here.”

Who knows if this constituency will provide the “Portillo moment” of the 2019 election, when a high-profile politician loses their job before the cruel glare of cameras at their count? Yet for someone who grew up amid the comfortable certainties of this area, it seems incredible to even suggest the Tory tradition might be under threat in this slab of rock-solid Surrey. It is one more sign of our political fluidity as tectonic plates shift beneath Westminster — and the ramifications go far deeper than current tribal battles. As I talked over coffee with Drown, she spoke with passion about the area’s growing wealth, its glaring inequalities, its gated homes — and its hidden underbelly of grafting people and grinding poverty. “Esher,” she said, “is a metaphor for the country.”

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