Analysis

Tories lose by-elections to Labour and Lib Dems

Chris Hopkins — Political Research Director, Savanta ComRes

A double defeat and a triumvirate of terror

Boris Johnson has been dealt a significant blow this morning with the loss of two by-elections. Labour took back the red wall seat of Wakefield with a 12.7% swing and the Lib Dems took Tiverton and Honiton with a massive swing of almost 30%.

The double defeat, in two very different constituencies, is a hit to the PM’s reputation as a vote winner – a key factor in his MPs’ minds when they consider if he is the man to lead them into the next election.

Boris loyalist Oliver Dowden resigned as party chairman this morning saying the Tories could not carry on with business as usual and “somebody must take responsibility”.

The PM has promised to listen to what people are saying but pledged to “keep going”.

With Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer saying the result shows the country has lost confidence in the Tories and his Lib Dem counterpart Sir Ed Davey hailing “the biggest by-election victory our country has ever seen”, Chris Hopkins of our sister company Savanta ComRes gives his top 10 takeaways from Boris’ bad night:

  1. In my last by-election analysis I started by congratulating the Liberal Democrats for overturning a seat that required the 7th biggest by-election swing of all time. I better start this one in similar fashion, by congratulating them on a truly remarkable victory that this time marked the third largest by-election swing of all time, overturning a 24,000+ majority, and planting a stake in the ground in their former ‘heartland’ – as much as the Lib Dems have ever had a heartland – of South West England, eroded over recent elections by the Conservatives. Make no mistake though; South West or not, this is Conservative territory, and the Lib Dems have won it relatively comfortably.
  2. I said that the North Shropshire “walloping” suffered by the Conservatives at the hands of their former coalition bedfellows was “no ordinary by-election defeat suffered by an incumbent government”. In terms of the sheer numbers, this victory is bigger, yet it doesn’t feel quite as momentous. This is a government on the rocks, with Partygate and sleaze allegations that brought about the North Shropshire defeat acting as the shot to a continued poor polling performance, vote of no confidence and cost of living crisis chaser that brings about this latest defeat.
  3. So while it perhaps doesn’t feel as momentous – after all, the Liberal Democrats were favourites to win this by-election with the bookies before the writ was even moved – the knock-on effect of this one could be huge. Conservative MPs waking up this morning, seeing a 24,000+ majority get overturned, the second 20,000+ majority to be lost since Partygate broke, and coming to the perfectly reasonable assumption that their supposedly safe seat could be vulnerable. Yes, this is a by-election, and usual by-election rules apply, but 290-odd Conservative MPs have a seat less secure than Tiverton and Honiton, and the sheer scale of this defeat is bound to restart murmurings of coups to oust the Prime Minister.
  4. Chronologically, the Tiverton and Honiton result came after the one in Wakefield, but I’ll use some artistic licence to say that Wakefield serves to compound the Conservative misery on Friday morning. Labour winning back this seat after losing it in 2019 for the first time since the 1930s is naturally significant, and given its position in the Red Wall, the 2019 Conservative intake of MPs will also be looking especially nervously over their shoulder at their prospects of retaining their seat at the next election.
  5. With uniform national swing, given where the two main parties are in the national polls and the relatively slim Conservative majorities across the Red Wall, many Red Wall seats would be vulnerable to switching back to Labour at the next election anyway, but the scale of this victory – an 18pt majority – outperforms Labour’s national poll lead. Again, normal by-election rules apply, knowing that this is extremely unlikely to be extrapolated at a General Election, but it would have been all-too-easy for Labour to, well, labour to an underwhelming victory here. In the end, they blew the Conservatives away.
  6. Poor vetting and ill-discipline caused these by-elections, and Conservative Party chair Oliver Dowden resigned after losing both of them this morning, citing “a run of very poor results” that presumably includes North Shropshire, the local elections, and 41% of the parliamentary party expressing no confidence in the leader. The Conservative Party will need a new plan heading into the next election, and on this evidence it’s going to take a lot more than a Rwanda plan and bashing trade unions to firm up the base.
  7. But where do the Conservatives go from here? It’s hard to imagine any policy platform really is enough to turn things around. In the last six-to-eight months, the leader’s popularity has sunk like a stone, the leader-in-waiting’s popularity suffered a similar fate, perceptions of economic competence have been ceded to *checks notes* the Labour Party amid a cost of living crisis that shows no end in sight, and two fifths of your parliamentary party recently said they had no confidence in the party leadership. The electorate does not reward divided parties at the ballot box. The electorate does not reward perceived economic incompetence at the ballot box. The electorate does not reward unpopular incumbent Prime Ministers at the ballot box. That’s a triumvirate of terror the Conservatives have to address.
  8. The Conservative Party therefore finds itself in this weird, almost Labour-esque position where its best chance of success is the other party not being good enough. Labour’s milquetoast leadership has felt like it’s just been waiting for a Conservative collapse to win by default. In doing so, voters are still unenamoured with Keir Starmer and the party as a whole, and therefore the Conservatives perhaps still stand a chance. If they can convince voters not that the Conservatives are the solution, but that Labour definitely are not, maybe they can limp to another election victory by being the least worst. Johnson vs Starmer feels like a race to the bottom worse than Cameron vs Miliband.
  9. The Conservatives can limp to victory if, and only if, the electoral maths allows it. A strange but significant phenomenon in these by-elections were that in Tiverton & Honiton, the Lib Dems won with a big swing and Labour lost their deposit; in Wakefield, Labour won with a decent swing and the Lib Dems lost their deposit. If this scale of tactical voting played out at a General Election, the Conservatives are in a battle in basically every seat, while Labour and the Liberal Democrats can concentrate resources where they’re needed most. While tactical voting is much more pronounced at by-elections, the two parties working in cahoots to oust the Conservatives at the next election is potentially a win-win for both Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
  10. I’m on annual leave today, off to see Elton John at Hyde Park, so how on earth can I shoehorn some sort of pun into this column? Something about a Lib Dem Yellow Brick Road? I guess that’s why they call it the blue wall? The Prime Minister’s still standing? They’re all terrible, so I can only end this column by apologising; but sometimes sorry seems to be the hardest word.