Tactical voting now ought to be renamed strategic voting, because it has a very clear end in view. And the end in view is exactly what looms for Boris Johnson after the Conservative Party carelessly lost two by-elections in a single night, in Wakefield to Labour and in Tiverton and Honiton to the Liberal Democrats. Professor John Curtice, the polling expert, reminded us that the average drop in the Tory vote over the last five by-elections they have tried to defend is 20 percentage points. The last prime minister who presided over that kind of disaster was John Major. There comes a point, at the end of a spell in government, when enough of the public have concluded that enough is enough. This might be that moment.
For Oliver Dowden, the Tory party chair, defeat must have come as something of a relief. For too long Dowden has been trapped, hostage-like, as the reluctant voice of a culture war for which he had neither appetite nor ability. In a strangely coded resignation letter, he said that “somebody” must take responsibility for what is going wrong. And he is right; someone is. In the knowledge that the Conservative Party isn’t likely to deal with Boris Johnson, the electorate signalled last night that it is prepared to take on the job.
The most significant fact of the night is that, without any formal alliance or high-level instruction, Yorkshire Liberal Democrats left Labour to win in Wakefield and Labour voters lent their support to the Liberal Democrats in Tiverton and Honiton. In Wakefield the Lib Dems’ vote fell from 3.9 per cent to 1.8 per cent. In Tiverton and Honiton Labour’s 2019 vote fell by almost 16 percentage points. The party went from second place to losing its deposit. The pollster Peter Kellner has pointed out that the Conservative Party won more votes than any other party in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton combined, but still lost both seats.
The clue to getting rid of the Tories is in plain sight. Tactical voting never transfers wholly from by-elections to general elections, but if the unspoken pact between the Labour and the Lib Dems holds at all during a general election, which it surely will, then the Tories are going to come second in a lot of places. The Conservative share of the vote is going to translate very inefficiently into seats. Almost all of Labour and the Lib Dems’ target seats are held by the Tories, and there are a lot of people who really do want Boris Johnson out.
[See also: David Gauke: How my party lost its way]
The only possible crumb of comfort for the Conservative Party is to enter the usual caveats about not reading too much into by-election defeats. And it is true that some of the great by-election disasters (Christchurch, Mid Staffordshire and Corby for example), reverted to being Conservative seats at the subsequent general election. Defenders of the Prime Minister could forlornly point out that it has been worse before. In 1994, the swing from Conservative to Labour in Dudley West was 29 per cent. South East Staffordshire 1996 was 22 per cent and Newbury in 1993 was 28 per cent to the Liberal Democrats.
Those examples, though, were a prelude to an electoral catastrophe. What is more, there is not a lot of good news on the horizon. The economic outlook is worse than gloomy, the Conservatives no longer hold the electoral dynamite of Brexit, and Johnson’s reputation as a likeable chancer has been ruined by lockdown parties in Downing Street. It would be complacent of the Conservatives to imagine that by-elections are subject to an iron law of return.
Of the two results, Tiverton and Honiton is the notable one. A swing to Labour of 12.7 per cent in Wakefield is good, if not outrageously so. Even a fraction of that at a general election will trouble the Conservatives in the north of England. But in Tiverton and Honiton we saw the largest Conservative majority ever overturned in a by-election on a swing of 29.9 per cent.
This cannot be written off as though it was just a run-of-the-mill, midterm protest vote. It was only seven years ago that the Lib Dems were in coalition with the Conservatives. They were not considered to be a viable repository of protest for a long while afterwards. Tiverton and Honiton confirms that the Lib Dems are back as the none-of-the-above party. With a leader, Ed Davey, who appears neither to attract nor repel voters, the Liberal Democrats are back in the position they like best – aiming for 20 per cent and perhaps sufficient seats at a general election to give them another strategically ruinous puzzle to solve.
The results, both of them, are also a vindication of Keir Starmer. Wakefield is a good solid victory in a pivotal part of the country. But Tiverton and Honiton is a good sign too. The Lib Dem vote will go up if ex-Tories no longer fear the consequences of getting rid of the government. Starmer has yet to attract enough voters into the Labour camp but his effect on quelling fear of Labour is underrated. It is an important point about his leadership that is hardly ever noticed. The verdict that a Labour government would not be the end of the world doesn’t sound like high praise. In a tight contest with a lot of strategic voting going on, it will matter.
There is a sort of cosmic irony that the Prime Minister should have been doing radio interviews about Wakefield from Rwanda. This is like a prototype of his nasty Tory immigration policy. Send the desperate to Rwanda, interview them and then decide if they are to be allowed back. The depressing and humiliating fate that this low, dishonest Prime Minister envisages for others is slowly happening to him.
[See also: The by-elections show what a Tory wipeout could look like]