Election disaster leaves Boris Johnson and his party with no options

Thursday’s by-election results are undeniably bad for the Conservative Party and the prime minister, whose main advantage was that he won the election.

The result in Wakefield will give thought to the Northern Tories, elected by a relatively small majority in 2019, who have so far largely supported Boris Johnson, believing he has won their seats and can do so again.

Poll data ever since partygate has consistently suggested they were at risk, but the concrete reality of losing a by-election in the Red Wall area will have more of an impact than the polls suggest.

But it is the result in Tiverton and Honiton that will most worry the Tories, as the Liberal Democrats overturned a majority of 24,000 votes.

Close

Supporters cheer for Liberal Democrat Richard Furd and his wife Kate as they come to the Tiverton and Honiton by-election results (Andrew Matthews/PA)

The scale of that victory is unlikely to be repeated in a general election, but it will be uncomfortable for many Conservative MPs who previously thought they were safe to read.

There are two common factors for both of these by-elections that should worry Conservative strategists.

One is the scale of tactical voting, where voters seem to prioritize defeating the Conservative candidate over voting for their preferred one.

In Wakefield, the Liberal Democrats lost their deposit by barely 500 votes, but the biggest effect was in Tiverton and Honiton.

Close

Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer meets with new Wakefield MP Simon Lightwood (R) as the party wrested the West Yorkshire seat from the Conservatives (Danny Lawson/Pennsylvania)

Labor moved from second place in 2019 with 11,654 votes to third with 1,564 votes as voters calculated that the Liberal Democrats had a better chance of winning.

It will be difficult to replicate this pattern across the country during a general election—it can be much more difficult to determine a favorite for a non-Conservative candidate when attention is not focused on one place—but even a modest increase in tactical voting would spell bad news. for conservatives.

Another factor is the fact that many Tories simply stayed at home. Some of this will be due to by-elections where turnout often declines, but Tory votes have fallen much more than turnout declines.

This suggests that the current Conservative tactics of trying to energize the party’s supporters with red meat, such as sending asylum seekers to Rwanda or being tough on unions, are not working.

The cost of living crisis remains a priority for most voters. A poll of 1,000 British adults conducted by Ipsos between Monday and Wednesday found that 85% were closely following the crisis, while less than 60% were following either strikes or Rwandan politics.

Close

(PA graphics)

Where this will lead Boris Johnson is unknown. In his resignation letter, party chairman Oliver Dowden appeared to blame the prime minister for the defeats, saying that supporters were “distressed and disappointed by recent events” and the party could not “continue to conduct business as usual”.

But while Mr. Dowden’s resignation is a resounding one, unless other ministers go with him, it is unlikely to convince Mr. Johnson to resign.

It is possible that two disastrous by-election defeats and Mr. Dowden’s resignation will help the 1922 Auxiliary Committee change the rules to allow another vote of confidence within a year of the previous one, but so far there has been little desire for such a change.

The prime minister, beleaguered on several fronts, is running out of options. If the 1922 committee does not change the rules, it can hold out for another year in the hope that things will improve, watching a fractious party and facing parliamentary uprisings.

Or he may call a general election in the hope that he can demonstrate the electoral winning streak that brought him to the premiership in the first place.

It would be a high-stakes gamble, especially at a time when the cost of living is skyrocketing, but it could quickly become his only faint hope of staying in number 10.