Boris Johnson’s scandal-strewn premiership, combined with Labour’s dizzyingly high national poll lead, might suggest that Uxbridge and South Ruislip will be an easy by-election gain for Keir Starmer’s party.
“On paper, we should win it,” said one Labour adviser of the west London constituency, which the former prime minister held with a majority of 7,210 until he resigned as an MP last month. The opposition has increased its electoral dominance of the capital in recent times, winning Tory fiefdoms such as Westminster and Wandsworth in local elections last year.
But behind closed doors there are jitters over whether Labour’s Uxbridge candidate, Danny Beales, will prevail on 20 July. Sadiq Khan’s contentious expansion of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) – designed to reduce the capital’s air pollution levels – is a drag on the by-election campaign, insiders admit. It means that in all London boroughs drivers of the most polluting cars – petrol vehicles that predate 2006 and diesels registered before 2015 – will soon be forced to pay £12.50 a day.
In a sign that he views the policy as a threat to Labour’s campaign, Beales departed from the party line at the first official hustings in Uxbridge last night, saying the extension of Ulez to outer London should be delayed. While Starmer has described the expansion as a “difficult decision that had to be made”, Beales said: “I’m hearing heart-wrenching stories at the moment – carers who have to travel for work who can’t afford to replace their car and may have to give up their job. This is not the time, during a cost-of-living crisis, to extend Ulez.”
Last week Labour advisers were given a briefing by party officials – following early canvassing – which suggested that Uxbridge could be a tighter race than previously thought. “There is definitely more concern about Uxbridge than there is about Selby and Ainsty,” one adviser said, referring to the by-election in the former Tory minister Nigel Adams’s North Yorkshire seat on the same day (where the Conservatives have a majority of 20,137). “We have never won Uxbridge and South Ruislip before, not even in 1997, and Ulez is a big problem for us.”
As a consequence Khan, the Mayor of London, will not join Beales’s team on the doorstep and will be absent from campaign leaflets, even though he will be seeking re-election himself soon. “He has his campaign and we have ours. There is that division of labour,” said one party source.
Labour is still predicted by both bookmakers and pollsters to win Uxbridge. But to do so, officials believe, it will need to focus on the “Tory mortgage bombshell” and the party’s civil war to distract attention from its own political challenges.
[See also: Is there any hope for the Labour left?]