Well, wham. And kapow for good measure. Assuming this is still a parliamentary democracy in which the views of the electorate trump everything, this was a stinging, pulverising rebuke from ordinary people to the flailing Boris Johnson government. Move on? Oh, not so fast.
Although it’s tempting to go straight to another discussion of Johnson’s personal future – more of that later – these by-elections remind us of bigger truths about where Britain has got to this summer.
The belief among Brexiteers that leaving the EU would refresh our democracy and set the country on a more successful economic path lies in ruins and ashes. Growth has been stunted, trade cramped, the currency diminished, even outside the inflationary effects unleashed by the war in Ukraine.
The Johnson government, resting on formerly Labour seats, has not had the ideological steel to embark on the neo-con revolution many ideologues yearned for. Ministers are reduced to a laughable hunt for Brexit opportunities, begging newspaper readers to come up with ideas, all of which so far seem thin and uncompelling. The vision of a revitalised, fully independent British parliamentary leadership, standing proudly stiff-backed in the world, has been vandalised – graffitied – by deceit and tawdry misbehaviour.
Strikes, spreading around the country, may yet turn enraged Tories back to that party; but as the ghost of Ted Heath could remind the cabinet, people rarely experience chaos in their daily lives and then toddle out to dutifully vote for more of the same.
“Our supporters are distressed and disappointed by recent events, and I share their feelings,” said Oliver Dowden, the Conservative chairman, as he resigned. “We cannot carry on with business as usual. Somebody must take responsibility.” Hard to argue with that, isn’t it?
But if we turn from Tory chaos to the opposition parties, the picture doesn’t get much clearer. Both Keir Starmer’s Labour and Ed Davey’s Lib Dems achieved brilliant results, but in both cases these were greatly aided by the collapse in Tory support and tactical voting.
Across the country there is a wide spread of anti-Conservative activism, ranging from revitalised leftist trade unions to genteel liberal “returners”. Beyond the “let’s get rid of this lot” consensus, nobody could hold such a disparate coalition together. I conclude that an unspoken, informal pact between the opposition parties will be central to the next election, and then that a coalition is likely after it.
How Starmer and Davey handle themselves will be crucial. It will be tricky. The Conservatives will warn, loudly and repeatedly, about cynical deals followed by chaos. Admittedly, right at the moment, it’s not a very easy argument for them to make, but it will be an uneasy time for the opposition parties. The obvious, ruthless thing for a coalition to do would be to introduce electoral reform and dish Conservative England. But nobody will say this out loud – indeed, it will be denied thrice and three times thrice. And any anti-Tory deal which granted the SNP the promise of a second Scottish independence referendum in the short term would be incendiary.
So, after a brief jig of delight at what the voters of Tiverton and Wakefield have done, the hardest strategic thinking now must be on the left.
Let’s turn to the other side, the Conservative story, because that is also disrupted by the by-election defeats. The resignation of Dowden is enormously important. A quiet, almost diffident figure, he has always had a practical grasp of realpolitik. He will be a real loss to the Tory machine as it gears up for a general election. He is well-liked and well-connected inside the cabinet; if there is anybody there with the courage to resign and challenge Johnson, this may be their moment.
Now of course it is true that because of the premature challenge by disorganised Tory plotters, in theory the Prime Minister is safe for a year. But the 1922 Committee, which governs Tory confidence votes, can change these rules at any time and a surreptitious attempt by Johnson supporters to fix the leadership of the backbench committee in his favour has not gone well.
What has really been lacking all along is a Michael Heseltine figure, in the sense of a major player prepared to stand up publicly and offer themselves to the Tories as an alternative to a seemingly tough and determined leader. It’s not about rules. It’s about momentum. This can only be done by somebody with the self-confidence, daring and philosophical grounding to say to the party: “He’s no good. You know it. I can do better. Come here. Follow me.” Does such a person exist?