The two seats involved could not have been more different. Tiverton and Honiton in Devon was as true blue Conservative as you can get, with the previous incumbent enjoying a massive 24,000 majority. Despite this, the Liberal Democrats managed to overturn it with a staggering 30% swing. Their leader, Sir Ed Davey, called it “the biggest by-election victory our country has ever seen” and added “people think the Prime Minister is a “lying law-breaker”. The second seat, Wakefield, was one of a wave of northern English constituencies that Labour lost to the Conservatives in the 2019 general election. Last night, it returned back to them, with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accusing the Conservatives of “imploding”.
Aequitas Global director and former Labour special advisor Simon Benson said:
“This double whammy of a loss in the blue heartlands as well as the strategic north is unprecedented and will have shaken every Conservative MP and government minister to their core. It shows that for the voters, the gloves are off and they are ready to turn out and vote tactically to depose Conservative MPs. This potentially puts dozens of Conservative seats in clear danger – including those of many of Boris Johnson’s previous supporters in parliament”.
The Prime Minister, in Rwanda for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, reacted by saying governments rarely do well mid-term and that he will “keep going”. This seemed to be an unfortunate echo of Margaret Thatcher’s “fight on and fight to win” comments only days before she resigned in 1990.
An immediate casualty has been the Conservative Party chair Oliver Dowden MP, who resigned this morning. Previously a rising star of the party, Dowden said in his resignation letter that the government “can’t carry on with business as usual” appearing somewhat at odds with the PM’s comments earlier.
The trouble for the Conservatives is that so much of their recent electoral success until now had been due to the personal appeal of Boris Johnson and his ability to cut through normal political divides. He became Mayor of London twice despite the city being overwhelmingly centre-left and repeated a similar trick in 2019 when he magically turned Labour seats blue in Starmer’s heartlands. Before that, Johnson was pivotal in the Brexit vote, helping to sway thousands of Labour voters to support Leave.
But partygate and ministers’ casual response to it remains a huge problem. Downing Street seemed convinced that the voters were as sick of it as they are, but they are tone-deaf to the deeper problems the scandal has left them; a seemingly terminal loss of trust. That’s the issue now. Meanwhile, rising inflation and stagnant wages have led to a cost of living crisis which is affecting everyone except Britain’s mega-rich, half of whom seem to have a job in Johnson’s cabinet, which isn’t exactly going to be a winning optic.
Johnson has two years to turn this ship around. But the more out of touch he and his Cabinet look, as millions of families struggle while living paycheck to paycheck, the worse this is going to get. Labour needs to improve too, with Starmer still failing to excite the electorate and give a clear direction of what he would do (and who he is). Possibly the most exciting development this year has been the resurrection of the Liberal Democrats in southern England, who are showing once again how formidable they can be once they are able to mobilize and campaign.
If Johnson survives pressure to stand down over the next few days, then we can expect him to cling to power until the next formal opportunity Conservative MPs have to challenge him. In the meantime, Conservatives need to decide who is untainted enough to replace him and Labour needs to begin its “what, who and why” campaign now. Whilst today has been horrific for the Conservatives, Labour can’t win a majority based solely on anger at the incumbents.
Both main party leaders have the work of their lives ahead of them.