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20 October 2023

What are the Tories telling themselves today?

The Conservatives are drawing false comfort from the narrative that they lost because their voters “stayed home”.

By Rachel Cunliffe

If you are a Conservative, licking your wounds after two of the worst by-election defeats in history, what stories are you telling yourself?

The dust has barely settled on the seismic results in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire, but already the narratives are in full swing.

The standard line, parroted by a range of Tory spokespeople over the past 12 hours, is that by-elections are always tricky for the party in government, particularly one in government for so long, and that these losses are to be expected. “It’s quite usual for a party in government to lose a by-election and for it not to be the same at a general election,” as Maria Caulfield, a health minister, insisted.

This is true – but only to a point. As the psephological guru John Curtice has pointed out, it is not usual to see by-election swings of this size – 23.9 per cent in Tamworth and 20 per cent in Mid Beds – from the governing party to the main opposition party. The fact that there have now been three such swings this year, including Labour’s Selby and Ainsty win in July, in three different parts of the country, cannot be so easily explained away.

What of the fact that turnout in both contests was low, as is the norm for by-elections? Conservatives, including the energy minister Andrew Bowie, who has been doing the media circuit all day, have made much of this, suggesting that the high number of people who stayed home somehow make these less of a Labour victory. According to Bowie, low turnout shows “there’s no enthusiasm behind the Keir Starmer project”.

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This is a rather odd comment for a number reasons. Firstly, in Tamworth Labour didn’t just increase its vote share but also the absolute number of people voting for the party: 11,719, compared with 10,908 at the 2019 general election. While the exact makeup of the seat is not identical now to four years ago, that suggests that some Conservative voters didn’t merely stay home – they switched to Labour.

In Mid Bedfordshire, meanwhile, Labour’s comparatively low vote share (it is rare to win a seat with just 34.1 per cent of vote) is down to the fact that this was a three-way race – one of the few seats in the country where the Liberal Democrats and Labour were competing to be the main challenger to the Tories. When I visited the constituency two weeks before polling day, I met voter after voter who made it clear they wanted to get the Conservatives out, but weren’t sure whether which opposition party had a better chance. The leaflets handed out by campaigns didn’t help: both Labour and the Lib Dems insisted they were the only party with a hope of beating the Tories.

[See also: A late election is not a risk-free strategy]

With a majority of 24,664 (the biggest ever lost by the Conservatives in a by-election) there was a real risk the anti-Tory vote would be so divided the Conservative candidate would come out ahead. For Labour to have triumphed even under such conditions is remarkable and conveys enthusiasm if not for Starmer, then for whoever is capable of winning against the Tories.

The Conservative platitude that these results are less severe because so many of their voters stayed home is also not much of a comfort. Lord Frost, the Former Brexit secretary, had a point when he bluntly warned: “If your voters don’t want to come out and vote for you then you don’t win elections.” Given the scale of these two defeats, it is worth questioning whether the Conservatives should be thinking of these people as “their” voters at all. As Mid Bedfordshire showed, just because a seat has gone your way for 92 years doesn’t make it yours.

Which brings us to another narrative: that it was all down to Reform. The populist right-wing party backed by Nigel Farage did not perform particularly well in either by-election, but won more votes in each seat than the Labour majority. That was enough for its leader, Richard Tice, to declare that Reform had “ensured Tories lost their seat” in both cases. Reform has now said it will field candidates in all seats at the general election.

So is the answer for the Tories to lean rightwards to prevent voters abandoning them for Farage’s party? That’s certainly the suggestion of some Conservatives on the party’s right flank, such as John Redwood, whose main takeaway was that “many people want the government to stop the boats, improve the quality and efficiency of services and cut taxes to get some growth”. But while ailing public services and the cost-of-living crisis (exacerbated by high taxes) were certainly key voter concerns, it’s hard to see where the idea that “stopping the boats” was a major priority in these contests comes from. In fact, given the big swings to Labour (and to the Lib Dems in Mid Beds), the government’s ever-harder line on immigration seems more likely to have been a turnoff than an attraction. Chasing right-wing voters ever further towards the extreme while ignoring moderates has left a gap in the centre ground that Starmer’s Labour Party has proved eager to fill. It’s hard to see how Rishi Sunak can tempt Reform-leaning former Tories back without antagonising yet more moderates in the process.

Interestingly, one factor that undoubtedly did play into these results is the people who led to the by-elections in the first place. It is hard to overstate just how frustrated voters in Mid Bedfordshire were at having been “taken for granted” by Nadine Dorries for so long. According to my colleague Anoosh Chakelian, Chris Pincher was similarly unloved in Tamworth. Both he and Dorries were not thought of as “visible” in their constituencies, and the circumstances of their departures – allegations of groping in Pincher’s case, and Dorries’s tantrum over not getting a peerage, both closely associated with the chaos of the Boris Johnson era – have provoked real anger. “You could hardly imagine a more challenging set of circumstances for two by-elections,” on Conservative MP told me in despair.

It seems clear that the main driver of these two defeats is the obvious one: voters are fed up after 13 years of Conservative government, they feel that everything is falling apart, and they want change. But it is also possible that the specific personalities involved tipped fate in Labour’s favour, in two seats they would normally not even have targeted. The historic nature of these record-breakingly catastrophic results helpfully bolsters Starmer’s narrative that Labour “can now win anywhere”. It will make it easier for the party to build on this momentum and attract voters in parts of the country where people might otherwise consider a tick in the Labour box a wasted vote. That might not have been the case had these by-elections in such “safe” Tory seats been triggered by characters other than Dorries and Pincher.

But that’s not a very comforting thought for the Tories today.

[See also: The Tories should prepare for worse]

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