Boris Johnson has endured two crushing by-election defeats. The Tories have lost the seats of Tiverton and Honiton (to the Liberal Democrats) and Wakefield (to Labour) by double-digit margins. The Conservative Party performed 8.3 percentage points worse than predicted by our New Statesman model in the former, and 8.6 points worse than expected by our model in the latter. Our model was already predicting that 118 Tory MPs will lose their seats at the next election, which shows you how poor these results are for Johnson. If they were replicated on a national level, the party would be all but wiped out at a general election.
The Tories, even under Johnson, are likely to do better in a general election, but these results are a harbinger of how Labour and the Lib Dems can, without any formal pact, deliver losses to the Tories all over the country. As Peter Kellner notes here, the Tories won the most combined votes of any party across the two by-elections last night, but they were beaten by tactical voting in each seat: with Labour voters in Tiverton and Honiton backing the Lib Dem candidate en masse.
[See also: Will the Tories’ humiliating by-election defeats reignite the campaign to oust Boris Johnson?]
Labour voters know that the Lib Dems are now, almost exclusively, an alternative to the Conservative Party across the country – there are few Labour-Lib Dem marginals – and that the Lib Dems will not prop up a future Tory government, unlike in 2010 or 2015. That gives Labour voters in Lib Dem-Tory marginals the scope to vote tactically. As Gavin Barwell, the former Downing Street chief of staff to Theresa May, said on Today this morning, the Tories are facing “a pincer movement” that could prove devastating in a national poll.
As Ben Walker put it after wrapping up his live blog for us early this morning: “Wakefield is a lesson in the government losing in the battlegrounds, and Tiverton is a tale in how bad it could really get.”
In the wake of the results, Oliver Dowden, the co-chair of the Conservative Party, has become the first cabinet minister to resign over Johnson’s leadership. “Our supporters are distressed and disappointed by recent events”, Dowden writes, as if he has suddenly discovered the depth of feeling against the Prime Minister, after he publicly backed Johnson in the no-confidence vote earlier this month.
So what now? “What indeed!” Replied one gleeful rebel when I put the question to them this morning. “Oliver is an honourable man and he is right someone should take responsibility,” says another rebel, “but the fault is not his.” Though the result is “pretty terrible for us”, says this MP, they think there is “clear evidence [that] Labour remain very beatable” – if the Tory party changes leader. Most interestingly, they reject the idea that rebels should have waited until today to hold the no-confidence vote against Johnson, as some are suggesting: there “still wouldn’t have been 180” MPs who voted to remove Johnson, they think.
A third MP tells me that upcoming elections to the executive of the 1922 committee – the body which will decide whether to hold another vote of no confidence in Johnson this year – are due to be held before the summer recess, rather than after, as previously anticipated. A rebel majority is expected to be elected, which will open the door to a rule change by the 1922 after the summer; there is no prospect, one senior MP thinks, of a rule change before then.
But that senior MP also adds, cryptically, that they “doubt it will be necessary” to have another vote. Given that Johnson has refused to resign, it is hard to see how the party will remove him without a formal vote, but other cabinet ministers may today be emboldened by Oliver Dowden’s resignation, and momentum may soon build against Johnson once again.