It’s always a treat when official bodies don’t mince their words, isn’t it? Earlier this year, some people who claimed to be investors in the gambling industry began approaching MPs in search of assistance. Most declined to meet; Blackpool South’s Scott Benton, though, offered to “call in favours” from colleagues, approach ministers in the voting lobbies and leak a confidential policy document. In exchange, the Conservative MP would receive a fee of up to £4,000 a month.
Alas for Benton, those investors were not actually investors at all: they were undercover reporters from the Times. When the story broke in April, he lost the Tory whip pending an investigation by the Parliamentary Standards Committee. That concluded this week, in a ruling that Benton had committed an “extremely serious breach” of the rules. The message he had sent, the committee said with commendable lack of euphemism, was that “he was corrupt and ‘for sale’,” and thus “communicated a toxic message about standards in parliament”. “We condemn Mr Benton for his comments, which unjustifiably tarnish the reputation of all MPs,” the committee added. It proposed a suspension of 35 days.
This means yet another headache for Rishi Sunak’s beleaguered government. Any suspension of more than ten days automatically triggers a recall petition; if 10 per cent of a constituency’s voters sign, that means a by-election. I’m not convinced Blackpool South really qualifies for the frequently-attached label of “Red Wall”: the Tories may only have retaken it in 2019, but they’d held it for decades until 1997. What is true, however, is that any election in a seat with Tory majority of under 4,000 is all but certain to end in a Labour gain. (A similar process is underway in Wellingborough, where Peter Bone stands accused of “many varied acts of bullying and one act of sexual misconduct”; but that seat looks relatively safe.)
This, though, would be far from the first such pain point for the government. So far this parliament there have been 19 by-elections: fewer, admittedly, than the 21 in 2010-15, but a) six of those were triggered by deaths, and a seventh by health problems, compared to just four this time, and b) that ran for the five years rather than (to date) four.
Two-thirds of the 2010-15 by-elections, what’s more, were in Labour seats: 11 of the 19 more recent ones have involved Tories. (To put that another way: one in 33 of the Tory MPs elected in 2019 are no longer MPs.) The party held three: two triggered by deaths, not resignations, plus Boris Johnson’s recently vacated Uxbridge. In 2021, it even gained a seat: Hartlepool, where Labour’s Mike Hill stood down following accusations of sexual harassment. Both the latter two were held up by friendly journalists as evidence of Tory tanks on Labour’s lawn.
But this is odd, in its way, because the much clearer pattern is of a governing party being forced into by-elections for reasons one may charitably describe as “esoteric”. Imran Ahmad Khan resigned last year after he was convicted of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy. Result: Labour gain Wakefield. Neil Parish resigned after being accused of twice watching pornography in the House of Commons. Result: the Lib Dems gain Tiverton and Honiton.
There have been seven by-elections this year alone, five of them in Tory seats. The only one the party held was the aforementioned Uxbridge, which sent the leadership down an anti-net zero rabbit hole. Two (Lib Dem gain Somerton & Frome; Lab gain Tamworth) were the result of resignations following misconduct allegations. Two (Lab gain Selby and Ainsty; Lab gain Mid Bedfordshire) were MPs flouncing because they were excluded from Boris Johnson’s resignation honours list. Whether it’s dodgy behaviour or rats leaving a sinking ship, the stench of decay is overwhelming.
This is more unusual than one might imagine. Looking at the tail end of the other governments to have held office in recent decades, the 2005-10 parliament included 14 by-elections, a significant increase on the six the previous term. Eight of these, though, were the result of untimely deaths: only one the result of scandal (Ian Gibson, Norwich North; expenses). Similarly, although there were 18 by-elections in 1992-7, 16 resulted from mortality rather than resignation. That period was hardly short of parliamentary scandals; but they tended to end in general election defeat, rather than premature goodbyes. Even the terrifying 30 by-elections held during the 1974-9 parliament were overwhelmingly the result of deaths or other medical problems (a significant plot point in James Graham’s play This House).
So even though the final term of every government has a fin de siècle quality, a sense of rolling crisis or scandal, they don’t generally come with the constant drumbeat of MPs being picked off one by one, for reasons either shocking or absurd. Perhaps this is because we now hold our MPs to higher standards. Perhaps it is not.
At any rate, at the 2019 election, the Conservative Party won 365 seats, giving the government an 80-seat majority. It now has 350, a majority of just 50, and may yet fall further. An election has to take place at some point in the next 13 months. Even if it didn’t, however, one might start to wonder how long the government would actually last.