Conservative MPs expected the by-election results to be appalling for them. In two out of three cases, so it proved.
In fairness, by-elections for incumbent governments are difficult at the best of times. Not many people are motivated to traipse down to a polling station to congratulate politicians on a job well done. These, however, are not the best of times and it is hard to argue that the government deserves to be congratulated.
Living standards are falling, prospects for economic growth are dismal and public services are overwhelmed. Added to this, voters in all three by-elections were forced to the polls because of the failures of the respective Conservative MPs they elected in 2019. In one of the seats, the MP resigned in disgrace (David Warburton); in another, they resigned in a self-indulgent strop (Nigel Adams); in the third case, Boris Johnson resigned both in disgrace and in a self-indulgent strop. Anger with the former MPs compounded the anger felt with the government. Reports from the doorsteps of Mid Bedfordshire suggest that such is the anger directed at their MP, Nadine Dorries – who has resigned in all but name but has not enabled constituents to elect her successor – that more bad news for the Tories is likely.
On the basis that by-elections are used to register a protest, Uxbridge and South Ruislip offered the Conservatives an opportunity that they took. They successfully turned it into a referendum on the extension of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez), a charge on the most polluting cars, and this enabled them to hold the type of seat that, for Labour to win a general election, the party would need to secure a comfortable majority. It has long been assumed that Labour will win most of the outer London seats that still vote Conservative at the next general election. These might be more competitive than previously thought.
By contrast, the result in Somerton and Frome, in which the party lost to the Liberal Democrats, offers no comfort for the Tories. With last year’s by-election defeat in Tiverton and Honiton also in mind, most West Country Tory MPs will fear falling prey to a Lib Dems revival. Mindful of these opportunities in a Leave-voting region, the Liberal Democrats will continue to avoid addressing the Brexit question.
The real shocker is Selby and Ainsty. It is true that the town of Selby (with different constituency boundaries) had a Labour MP from 1997-2010, but by 2019 this was a very safe Conservative seat. Labour needed to overturn the largest numerical majority in its postwar history (20,137) and it did so comfortably.
The Conservatives are under attack from all directions and very few of their MPs can be entirely confident their seats are safe. Morale is low and activists are demotivated; a desperate party may be susceptible to bad ideas to recover its position. But the Uxbridge result does provide some comfort. Ulez is a local issue, applicable to a relatively small number of seats, but the impact this matter had was greater than one would expect if there was genuine enthusiasm for Labour. This provides a small glimmer of hope for the Tories, which is more than many of them were expecting yesterday.