Voters will go to the polls today in the Chester by-election, which will be the first electoral test for Rishi Sunak.
The outgoing Labour MP Chris Matheson – who resigned in October after being found to have breached the sexual misconduct policy of the House of Commons – held the seat in 2019 with a 6,164 majority, and 49.6 per cent of the overall vote.
The north-west constituency is something of a swing seat. It was held by the Conservatives until 1997, and then swung back to the party in 2010. Matheson won the seat with a majority of just 93 votes in 2015, and Labour has held it since.
The Conservative Party, however, is playing down any expectation of a victory today – raising questions over whether the Tory vote will collapse in Chester.
Ben Walker, the NS‘s senior data journalist, lives in the constituency and is forecasting that Labour will take 62 per cent of the vote. Some pollsters are predicting the Tory vote share could fall as low as 20 per cent. Labour, meanwhile, would have little to boast about if their vote is close to 50 per cent – a result which they would likely blame on Matheson’s departure.
If the Tory vote in Chester diminishes, it will only add further pressure on Sunak. Twelve Conservative MPs have already announced that they will stand down at the next election, and though some are retiring, others are in the early stages of their career. It is a sign that the party is braced for defeat.
A bad result may cause further panic and increase the likelihood of a Tory rebellion in the House of Commons, as MPs try to keep in favour with their constituents by championing their own causes. The Conservatives, many of whom remained loyal to Boris Johnson, have found little incentive to unite behind yet another new leader.
Experiencing a by-election disaster may focus Tory minds on just how much is at stake, and the kind of voters the party is losing.