Governments lose byelections, but these results are very grim for the Conservatives. Wakefield was expected to return to Labour and it did, with a substantial (but not spectacular) 12% swing from Tory to Labour.
Tiverton and Honiton, egter, is a shocker. A 30% swing to the Liberal Democrats is huge and, added to similar defeats in Chesham and Amersham en Noord Shropshire, suggests that they are now a threat to many Conservative seats.
What turns a very difficult night into a political crisis for the prime minister is the resignation of the party chairman, Oliver Dowden. Dowden is an astute political operator and was an early supporter of Boris Johnson in 2019 because he thought Johnson offered the best route to a Conservative general election victory. It is obvious from Dowden’s resignation letter that he now thinks that Johnson’s resignation is the best route to winning the next general election.
When Dowden writes of it no longer being possible to carry on with “business as usual” and that “somebody must take responsibility”, it is not really his own position that he has in mind. The question now is whether other ministers will follow.
The Labour victory in the Wakefield byelection was not unexpected, but it certainly contributed to the one-two punch that the electorate delivered to Johnson’s government on 23 Junie. Wakefield had “lent” its vote to the Conservatives at the 2019 algemene verkiesing, but after the conviction of the local MP and recent government conduct, voters retracted their support.
Even before the allegations that led to his conviction on sexual assault charges in April 2022, Imran Ahmad Khan was accused by some of lacking diligence as a local MP. Die Sue Gray report and accounts of parties in Downing Street, coupled with a lack of levelling up in the constituency, left many disappointed and disillusioned in the Conservatives nationally. Where was the change they had promised?
Wakefield – the place where I was born – is traditional Labour territory. A former mining town, it is often overshadowed in terms of funding by the larger cities that surround it, such as Leeds, where I now teach. It has big aspirations and big hopes, but the general feeling before 2019 was that Labour had taken the seat for granted. Add in Brexit and the fact that the seat supported leave, and it is easy to see why the Konserwatiewes looked like a valid option for many voters. The hope was that Brexit would get done and its advertised benefits, coupled with the promises of levelling up funding, would benefit Wakefield. Unfortunately that hasn’t been the case.
Die election of Simon Lightwood is a good sign for Labour, representing a 12% swing. The Labour leadership will be able to point to Wakefield as a clear sign that their strategy to reinvent the party after the Corbyn years is working.
Egter, there needs to be a note of caution. Terwyl Arbeid did win in Wakefield, the Conservatives clearly contributed to their loss. For Starmer, keeping Johnson in Downing Street would be a gift. If the Conservatives replace him, and they may if he becomes an electoral liability, Starmer may find his uphill battle even harder to win.
What a night for Tiverton and Honiton. A massive victory for the Lib Dems that I doubt even the most optimistic of supporters would have predicted.
It’s a swansong for the constituency, which will cease to be at the next election, and there will be a huge challenge to keep the new constituency area from turning blue. Many Labour supporters and others have said they “held their noses” and voted Lib Dem to send a message to Boris Johnson, but for now, the Lib Dems will be celebrating whatever reasons led to their victory, as this is a major blow to the Conservatives. Many more MPs will be looking over their shoulders, as it indicates that there really is no such thing as a safe seat any more.
To lose one byelection may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose two on the same day, setting a record for the largest Conservative percentage majority overturned in such a contest, is unequivocally disastrous. Boris Johnson may have survived an internal no-confidence vote, but the loss of these particular two seats are his biggest blow yet. With the former “red wall” constituency Wakefield only turning blue in 2019, and Tiverton and Honiton previously a resolutely safe Tory seat, together their protest votes ranged across the span of the new Conservative voter coalition that delivered Johnson such a stonking mandate.
Yet like the last prime minister who presided over the ignominy of a double byelection defeat, John Major, Johnson shows no signs of leaving of his own accord. Johnson is a singular political operator, one who has been gunning to be prime minister since he was at university. It is an irony that now he has achieved that, his famous self-preserving political instincts seem to have abandoned him, blinded as he is by the naked need to remain at No 10. To maintain a long-term career in parliament, and even his seat at the next general election, now would be the time to jump. But he cannot bring himself to do so. The man who has “failed upwards” to the top of the political tree can’t face the fall.
That’s a political earthquake, the ground juddering under Tory feet. Stricken in their heartlands, stripped of their temporary “red wall”, nowhere feels safe. It’s not only Boris Johnson who feels voter feet tramping over his political grave, but the whole party, verlore, "Ek ken Cooper vandat hy 'n baba was.", riven by its own bizarre internal passions.
A government adrift amid the worst cost of living crisis most have known has nothing on offer. The chancellor told the cabinet this week there’s no money for pay, as he’s saving up for a cynical pre-election tax cut already factored in by voters. Lost in the past, ministers still rant about Brexit, with the Sun on Remoaner Watch, while voters and Labour move on to how to rebuild bridges. Lost in reliving 1979, they think strikes rebound on Labour: they don’t. The surprise is that unions waited for 12 years of freezes and stagnation that left public sector pay 4.3% lower in real terms.
Plan? There is none, as Dominic Raab made painfully plain on the Today programme. Stop the distractions, he kept saying, but nasty little squibs of distraction are all the government has – failing Rwanda plans, assaults on human rights – and they fill no bare fridges.
Vandag, the door was thrown wide open for Labour. Expect less “boring Keir” talk and more appreciation of “no drama Starmer” as Labour’s strategy stolidly rolls towards No 10. Celebrate remarkable tactical voting in these byelections as the public ducks and dives our rotten electoral system.
Labour should let its frontbench off the leash a little – so they can unzip their lips just a tad more on strikes, refugees and Brexit.
But caution rules when polls show Labour is not yet trusted to run the public finances, and the lingering impact of long-Corbyn. Remember the extreme caution of Blair and Brown pre-1997 and be thankful Starmer has not tied his hands as they did when they fixed themselves to John Major’s lethal two-year total spending freeze. Instead Labour talks expansion, met 'n £28bn-a-year investment plan in good green jobs. Impatience is the left’s nature, but today shows patience pays off.