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20 October 2023

The by-election results are a bonfire of Tory delusions

Westminster has long underpriced the chance of a Conservative wipeout.

By Lewis Goodall

Someone once noted that to play the video game of British politics as the Conservative Party is to play on “easy mode”. A key element of this is how most of the important newspapers are perennially on their side. Even in an age when print readership is declining, those papers’ ability to shape the narratives on which most of Westminster’s unreality game is based is usually a huge asset to the party. It is an important part of a wider media-political ecosystem that is hardwired to view the world from a right-of-centre perspective.

We are in one of the rare periods in which this asset is a liability. The lens through which politics is seen, always a little askance, a bit jaundiced, has blinded the party to how deep the hole it’s in. In Westminsterland, where thoughts are ordered and collected by a few hundred politicians, journalists and opinion-formers, the received wisdom has long underpriced the chance of a Conservative wipeout, no matter the evidence from the electorate.

This was reaffirmed by Labour’s stunning by-election victories in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire. Keir Starmer’s party enjoyed the second- and eighth-biggest by-election percentage swings towards Labour in its history. None of this should have come as a surprise. The Conservatives haven’t been ahead in a single poll since the end of 2021, and their vote share regularly languishes below 30 points. They have now lost eight by-elections in seats they held during this parliament. The 2023 local election results were dreadful. Far too much focus was paid to the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election and not nearly enough to Selby and Ainsty, where there was a dramatic swing to Labour. As I wrote for the New Statesman at the time, this was partly Labour’s own fault: it went into a classic Labour Party funk, self-recriminating over the Ultra Low Emission Zone. The Conservatives, meanwhile, banked Uxbridge and moved on. Both parties, and SW1 overall, made a mistake in doing so.

Uxbridge, as has been obvious from the day of the election itself, was sui generis. Yet Rishi Sunak has built an entire media and political strategy around it – denouncing the “war on the motorist” as he tries to extrapolate the borough’s particular exigencies to the whole country. There’s no sign it’s working. Labour’s political position has been repeatedly underestimated throughout the summer and since. This is partly because the opposition’s electoral performance has (with a few exceptions) been so anaemic for the past 13 years. The predictions of permanent Conservative hegemony have been so absolute and enduring, it’s as if no one can quite believe that the party is finally heading for defeat.

[See also: The Tories should prepare for worse]

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That assumption may finally be about to change. There is no spinning these results, though the Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan, gamely tried on Friday morning. She argued that many Conservatives stayed at home, failing to switch to Starmer. Labour would argue this is all it needs – that it is a vindication of the party’s strategy not to frighten anyone and give previous Tory voters licence to stay home. Keegan’s words won’t comfort Conservative MPs who are waking up to the prospect of a wipeout. Few seats are safe. The propensity of the electorate to “swing”, in Scotland in 2015 and in Labour’s Red Wall in 2019, shows there is ample cause for such a fear. The electorate has fewer “forever” loyalties; it is less forgiving.

The scale of the party’s volatility is stunning. Only two years ago the Conservatives under Boris Johnson won Hartlepool in a by-election from Labour on an enormous swing of 16 per cent. It felt as if the Brexit realignment was inexorable. But that appears to have been halted and put into reverse. Tamworth and seats like it in the West Midlands have been trending away from Labour not only since Brexit but for the last 20 years. The number of by-election results we have, coupled with local election data, suggests that Brexit has lost much or all of its salience as a voting indicator on the Leave side. That would have seemed incredible only a short time ago.

Where does this leave Sunak? He is lucky that after three changes of prime minister this parliament, many Conservative MPs feel that choosing another leader would be politically impossible. There is also no ready alternative to dislodge him. No one, save for discredited figures such as Liz Truss, has anything to say. After 13 long tumultuous years, the Conservative Party is intellectually exhausted. Each faction has had a go, and in its own way failed. The years after 2019 offered a unique opportunity to cement an historic realignment and embed the party’s hegemony, but this was squandered through Johnson’s dishonesty and Truss’s recklessness. The pillars of the 2019 election itself are long gone. Sunak hasn’t made the situation worse, but he can’t find a way of making it better.

The fact the small Reform vote is larger than the Labour majority in both Tamworth and Mid Beds, combined with the evidently large numbers of Tory abstainers, will further strengthen the party’s right. It will argue Sunak must give these people something to turn out for. Sunak, already ideologically predisposed to such ideas and worried about his immediate job security, will probably bend to them, and plunge still further towards his party’s ideological excesses. The chances of an election centred on withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights have gone up, as has the prospect of a January 2025 contest (the last permissible date). 

For Sunak, it would be better if there was an internal political reaction to these by-election calamities. If the party doesn’t have the energy to try and change course, the Tories will look ready to go gently into that good night; they would have simply given up.

[See also: Danger still lies ahead for Labour]

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