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12 April 2022

A Wakefield by-election would be a defining test for the Tories and Labour

The Red Wall seat is exactly the type of constituency the opposition must win to have any hope of general election victory.

By Freddie Hayward

The Conservative MP Crispin Blunt is facing heavy criticism for defending Imran Ahmad Khan, the Wakefield MP who was convicted yesterday of sexually assaulting a teenage boy. He called it a “dreadful miscarriage of justice” and claimed that the case “relied on lazy tropes about LGBT+ people”.

This morning Blunt resigned as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on global LGBT+ rights — as was demanded by three of its members, Chris Bryant, Stewart McDonald and Joanna Cherry — and retracted the statement. In his retraction he promised that he believed “strongly” in the “independence and integrity of the justice system”.

The Conservative Party released its own statement saying that “we completely reject any allegations of impropriety against our independent judiciary”.

Blunt’s comments aren’t the only reason the Conservative’s respect for due process is, once again, coming under doubt. Khan’s victim said he told the Conservative Party press office about the allegation in the days before the election of Khan, now 48, as an MP in December 2019, raising serious questions about the party’s selection process.

Khan’s conviction could also lead to a by-election. If he gets a prison term of more than a year he will be automatically disbarred from being an MP and an election will take place. If it’s less than a year he will continue as an MP throughout his planned appeal against the verdict but an election could be triggered through a recall petition.

A by-election would be a key test for Keir Starmer. Wakefield is exactly the type of constituency Labour needs to win to have any hope of gaining the most seats at the next general election. Wakefield voted strongly for Brexit and had a Labour MP for 87 years before Khan was elected. While our election model suggests Labour would win in Wakefield, last year’s upset at Hartlepool serves as a warning to the party to avoid complacency.

As for the Tories, a poor showing in Wakefield could unnerve the parliamentary party, particularly those who were first elected in 2019 on small majorities. A central reason Tory MPs tolerate Boris Johnson is because he is seen as a key electoral asset. A poor result in any by-election could unbalance this bargain and make his MPs even more jittery. In any case, Khan’s decision to appeal against the verdict means a by-election is unlikely before the forthcoming local elections, where questions about the Conservative Party’s propriety are bound to surface.

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This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

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