Old Bexley and Sidcup byelection: Tories retain true-blue seat

The Conservatives have held the safe seat of Old Bexley and Sidcup in the first in a series of closely watched parliamentary byelections.

Councillor Louie French was elected as the new MP, replacing the well-liked former cabinet minister James Brokenshire, who died in October after suffering lung cancer.

Following a relatively short campaign, French won 11,189 votes – ahead of the closest challenger, Labour’s Daniel Francis, who got 6,711.

Election-watchers believed turnout would be fairly low given the vote was held at the start of winter and the race was not expected to be narrow. It was reported to be as low as 34%, according to the BBC Newsnight policy editor, Lewis Goodall.

Although the south London constituency has been blue since 1950 and was represented by former Tory prime minister Ted Heath in the House of Commons, the result will help calm jitters within the party about Boris Johnson’s leadership.

Some Tory voters who spoke to the Guardian during the campaign voiced dissatisfaction with the prime minister’s leadership – particularly in the wake of a damaging sleaze scandal.

Other Conservative canvassers and aides reported hearing similar frustrations from some people who normally backed the party, in the run-up to the first byelection to be held in London since Johnson romped to victory in the 2019 general election.

Labour insiders had talked down the prospect of a shock result like that seen in Chesham and Amersham in June – when the Liberal Democrats took the seat from the Conservatives – even though governments are traditionally punished at midterm byelections.

Keir Starmer has been bolstered by a recent levelling off in the national polls, seeing Labour equalise with the Conservatives for the first time since the start of 2021.

The result in Old Bexley and Sidcup will ease immediate pressure on Johnson; however, there are further byelections to follow. Later in December, the Tories will try to hold North Shropshire – a seat vacated by Owen Paterson after the disgraced former MP was found to have committed an egregious breach of paid lobbying rules.

A byelection will also be held in Southend West after the murder of its Sir David Amess. However, the Conservatives are expected to be the only major party to contest it as Labour and the Liberal Democrats plan not to field a candidate out of respect.

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