Byelection defeats cast pall over Boris Johnson’s pitch that he is an election winner

Helen Hurford, the Tory candidate in Tiverton and Honiton, reportedly reacted to her humiliating byelection defeat by locking herself in a room and refusing to speak to the media. 約 4,000 miles away in Kigali, ボリス・ジョンソン could be forgiven for wanting to do exactly the same.

Thursday’s double byelection loss, taking in defeat to Labour in Wakefield, and a particularly astonishing capitulation against the Lib Dems in Tiverton and Honiton, is likely to prompt similar feelings of anguish among Conservative MPs.

Uppermost on Johnson’s mind as he awakes in Rwanda, where is is attending a Commonwealth summit, is whether this is sufficient to spark renewed moves to oust him, or whether the resignation of Tory chair Oliver Dowden is viewed as sacrifice enough.

The loss of Wakefield, a “red wall” seat snatched from Labour only in 2019, was widely expected, while the recent run of Lib Dem byelection wins meant many Tories would have been braced for a repeat in Tiverton and Honiton.

But if you set aside the inevitable expectation management, even for an embattled prime minister leading an unpopular party in their 12th year of rule, this was a pretty dire pair of results.

Labour’s win in Wakefield, where Simon Lightwood took almost 48% of the vote, is a significant boost to Keir Starmer, even if some of his more entrenched critics will inevitably grumble that the margin of victory could have been even higher.

There are unlikely to be any such gripes for Ed Davey. On election day in Tiverton and Honiton, Lib Dem activists were no more than cautiously hopeful about overturning a 24,000-plus Conservative majority in a seat which, in it various incarnations, has been completely Tory for about 130 年.

To achieve this, the largest numerical majority ever overturned in a byelection, is a stunning success. To do this fairly easily, with a majority of more than 6,000 投票, is beyond their most fevered dreams.

Conservative officials might point to the circumstances behind the byelections – sitting MP Imran Ahmad Khan 降りた in Wakefield after being convicted of sexually assaulting a teenage boy, 一方 Neil Parish quit in Tiverton and Honiton for watching pornography in the Commons.

They might also privately note the vulnerabilities of their candidates. Hurford struggled with questions about Johnson’s character, while in Wakefield, Nadeem Ahmed apologised for a convoluted parallel likening disgraced MPs to mass-murdering GP Harold Shipman.

But two areas in particular should gravely worry them. One is the scale of tactical voting, which saw Labour and the Lib Dems unofficially divide the seats between them, a message clearly heard by locals.

Such unspoken pacts are notably harder to pull off amid the white noise of a general election, but Conservative MPs face a pincer movement from a resurgent Labour in “red wall” seats, and from Lib Dem challengers both in the “blue wall” of commuter belt constituencies, and in some rural areas.

The other concern, one which will particularly strike Johnson, is the apparent failure of his policy reset since narrowly winning a confidence vote of Tory MPs at the start of this month.

No 10’s focus has been so-called wedge issues, including the deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda, a pledge to change human rights laws, and blaming the ongoing rail strike on Labour.

Voters in both West Yorkshire and Devon seemed notably unmoved, instead expressing scepticism about a government whose sole defining focus appears to be nothing more than keeping Johnson in power for as long as possible.

Johnson is not due back in London for another week, with the G7 gathering in Germany and then a Nato summit in Spain after Rwanda, and the opportunity for his MPs to plot will be curtailed by the long summer Commons recess, starting next month.

Tory rebels had already earmarked the autumn as the earliest expected date for a renewed challenge. The results are unlikely to make this sooner, but do make it notably more likely.

Johnson’s sell to his party was always based on the fact he was an election winner, something he achieved in 2019. That election win was billed as a new era for the Tories and a reset for British politics. To many Conservative MPs this morning, it might just appear a fluke.