Senior Tory Admits Matt Hancock Scandal Might Have Cost Them Batley By-Election
The Tory party chair Amanda Milling admitted the Matt Hancock scandal affected their chance sin Batley (Alamy)
The chair of the Conservative party has admitted last week's Matt Hancock affair scandal, which led the former health secretary to resign, was a factor in their failure to win the Batley and Spen by-election.
Amanda Milling said the issue “was something that came up on the doorstep” after Labour secured only a slim majority of 323, down from over 3,000 after the 2019 general election.
The Conservatives had been tipped to repeat May's unprecedented victory in Hartlepool and take the West Yorkshire seat from Labour.
Kim Leadbeater, the sister of the murdered former MP for the constituency Jo Cox, defeated the Tory candidate Ryan Stephenson despite the fact he had been the heavy favourite with the bookies and was well ahead in early polls.
After the result Milling said she believed the scandal around Hancock's affair and subsequent resignation had affected their chances of taking the seat, which Labour have held for almost 25 year.
"It was something that came up on the doorstep, I have to be honest about that," she told Sky News.
“They had some issues over the weekend in terms of what happened. Matt resigned and that was the right thing to do.”A source in the Liberal Democrats, whose candidate finished fourth with just 3.3% of the vote, also believed the Hancock scandal had impacted the vote. “We were working really hard in two wards in the constituency where it is a fight with the Tories," they said.
“Hancock was a factor, or more importantly Johnson’s reaction to Hancock – people noticed he didn’t get the sack. I think people are getting weary of Johnson and his values.”
But one Conservative activist who campaigned in Batley and Spen over the weekend said the Hancock affair didn’t come on the doorstep for them, and put the Labour victory down to Leadbeater’s very strong local profile.
“The name recognition of Kim Leadbeater was very high,” they told PoliticsHome. "It was very noticeable how many people knew her as an individual.
“I’ve never campaigned somewhere where someone who wasn’t the incumbent was mentioned so much by name. She was both respected and held with a lot of affection”.
The Conservative peer Lord Hayward agreed it was a factor, telling Sky News: “With a small majority, a small defeat like this, you can always point to things which made a difference and I think it's reasonable for people to say well, with a small majority, this might have influenced the results.”
Pressed on whether Boris Johnson’s decision not to sack Hancock and tell the media the matter was “closed” last Friday, he added: “Oh, I think it's a combination of both sides.
“It’s not just Matt Hancock, it is a decision of the Prime Minister because of the apparent delay in taking action.
"So, when you lose an election, particularly by a small margin you can point to all sorts of different things that clearly that will be something that will come up.”
Earlier this week the Prime Minister dismissed the controversy over Hancock, who resigned after his relationship with aide Gina Coladangelo was exposed by The Sun, and said people “on the doorstep” were focused only on local issues.
On a visit to Johnstone's Paints factory Batley, Johnson said: "I read about that story on the Friday, and we had a new Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on Saturday.
"And we see the opportunity, now that we're coming towards the end of the pandemic, as we get all the jabs in, we see an opportunity for a jobs-led recovery here in Batley and Spen and across the whole country.”
While it is not unusual for the incumbent party to win a by-election, after a rancorous and vitriolic campaign, and disastrous polling for Labour, the party was widely expected to lose the seat.
This week has seen renewed calls for a challenge to Keir Starmer's leadership, but pressure has now eased after the Batley victory.
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