As a rule, by-elections in this country are bad news for the party in government. This has been the accepted norm for decades and is a classic defence for those in power when they inevitably lose a constituency or two. The phrase “mid-term blues” is a much-used excuse.
As such, it is not all that surprising that the Conservatives lost the parliamentary seat of Wakefield in the June 2022 by-election. The seat had only turned blue in 2019 and, up until this point, it had been Labour’s since the 1930s. The Conservative majority had been 3,358 (figures in this region are regularly overturned in elections). To make matters worse, the circumstances in which their sitting MP, Imran Ahmad Khan, had resigned had been bleak — he lost the Tory whip a considerable length of time prior to the by-election, after being charged with sexual assault. His potential Tory replacement, Nadeem Ahmed, did not do himself any favours by comparing Ahmad Khan to the GP serial-killer Harold Shipman during the campaign.
In contrast, Labour’s candidate Simon Lightwood did not have a similar moment of despair, and even managed to use one of Johnson’s lines against the Conservatives in a TV discussion amongst potential candidates for the seat. When pushed on his views on Brexit, he replied that Brexit was done and wasn’t an issue coming up during the campaign. In doing so, Lightwood managed to stop just shy of using Johnson’s famous slogan whilst at the same time not giving the Tories any credit for it. The fact that remain-backing Lightwood could win a seat that voted overwhelmingly for Leave in 2016 demonstrates that the current political landscape is very different from the so-called ‘Brexit Election’ of December 2019.
On the other hand, the result in the Tiverton and Honiton by-election was certainly not meant to happen. Conservative MP Neil Parish stood down after admitting to viewing pornography in Parliament, but the resulting by-election worried few within the Conservative party — his constituency was one of the safest in the entire country. It turned out to be the largest numerical majority overturned in a by-election…ever. A 24,239 majority disappeared overnight to the Liberal Democrat Richard Foord. Although the result happened in the former Liberal Democrat heartlands of the South-West, their victory could simply be seen as a protest vote — with so few MPs, the Liberal Democrats are likely not seen as a potential party of governance. Their 6,144 majority here could easily be overturned at the next general election.
In some ways, it is surprising that these poor election results weren’t the straw that broke the camel’s back. One of Johnson’s greatest attributes, or perceived attributes, was that he was a serial vote winner. These two by-elections were held in two drastically different Conservative constituencies. Wakefield was a ‘Red Wall’ seat and Tiverton and Honiton was a traditional ‘Blue Wall’ seat. Both were lost. Perhaps Johnson was at times too successful for his own good, for example with his by-election victory in Hartlepool in 2021, when he already had a majority of 80 in the Commons. The Conservative victory there certainly cemented his reputation as the man who wins.
Hypothetical situations are a dangerous thing in politics, in fact it is dangerous to predict anything at all. If Chris Pincher, the MP accused of groping two men, were to resign, the by-election in his constituency of Tamworth could be a very good indicator as to whether Johnson — the individual — was the problem, or whether it is the current Conservative governance that people in this country are taking issue with. The now party-less Chris Pincher has a majority of 19,634. This is significantly greater than the majority that Labour had to overturn in Wakefield last month, however, it is not quite on the same level of the feat that the Liberal Democrats accomplished in Devon. If Starmer’s Labour Party can take Tamworth, then they can get a majority at the next general election.
Image: Chatham House via Wikimedia Commons