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18 July 2023

Why by-election defeats would benefit Sunak

The PM’s Conservative rivals won’t want to lead a doomed party.

By John Oxley

This Thursday, 20 July, Rishi Sunak faces his biggest electoral test since becoming Prime Minister. The three by-elections he is defending represent a broad electoral temperature check and will give an insight into just how doomed the Tory majority is. Normally, a poor showing would hurt a PM – but in this instance, the worse Sunak does the more he may have a strange security in No 10.

Each by-election represents a different sort of contest, too: the constituencies are in different parts of the electoral map and have their own dynamics. But together, they allow us to measure the electoral state of the nation.

Uxbridge, Boris Johnson’s former seat, is the sort of suburban Labour/Conservative marginal that Keir Starmer will have to pick up if he is to gain a majority. Somerton and Frome, on the other hand, is a marginal with the Lib Dems. The result here will show how strong the so-called Blue Wall might be, and whether Ed Davey’s party is capable of a resurgence in the south-west, where it was once strong. Selby and Ainsty will test whether the worst-case Tory doomsday predictions are accurate. At the last general election, the Conservatives won the seat by 20,000 votes. Defeat would mean one of the biggest ever by-election swings.

To lose any of these would be uncomfortable for the Tories, no matter that by-election setbacks are expected for the government and would normally call the leadership into question. Last year, losses in similar seats – Wakefield and Tiverton – hastened the defenestration of Boris Johnson, bursting the bubble of his electoral invincibility. But ironically, the worse the showing, the more secure Rishi Sunak could be. 

[See also: What could go wrong for Keir Starmer?]

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The Conservative Party can be ruthlessly regicidal, but the knives will only be out if rival factions can marshal them. This will depend on what story the putative successors tell themselves to explain defeat. If one or two of the seats are lost, there’s a chance the party would convince itself that it could be saved by jettisoning Sunak – either by finding a narrow path to a majority, or pinning Starmer back to a hung parliament. This will embolden those who see themselves capable of leading such a swing. 

If, however, the Conservatives are badly beaten everywhere, those hopes of redemption will be dashed. If the party cannot even hold safe seats like Selby, it will look like the sort of crisis that can’t be turned around in a year. In such a scenario, potential replacements might sit on their hands – preferring to lead the party in opposition rather than taking on a sinking ship.

Most of Sunak’s potential rivals are young enough to endure a period as leader of the opposition. They might also relish the chance to rebuild the party in their image if there is a significant election defeat next year. Looking ahead to a potential 2029 election, they probably also see Keir Starmer as a weak leader who will inherit a difficult country to govern. If there is no way of turning the party around for a quick win, they will happily wait until then. 

As a result, Thursday may have a confusing impact on Rishi Sunak. Silencing the doubters by winning all three elections seems unrealistic. But there could be more comfort for him in total defeat than an ambiguous outcome. If there is hope he can revive the party’s fortunes, there may be others who think they can do it better – with a possible challenge to follow. If he looks like he is heading for a hefty defeat across the country, they will likely let him take the fall alone.

Follow our by-election live blog here, for the latest news and updates

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