Conservatives Could Still Find A Glimmer Of Hope In Looming Double By-Election
Two more by-elections are the last thing the troubled Tory party could want right now, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak once again facing a battle to defend two of his party’s previously safe seats following the resignations of Nadine Dorries and Chris Pincher.
The Mid Bedfordshire vote has been set for 19 October, and although a date has not yet been set for Tamworth, there is speculation that it could be on the same day. It is otherwise expected to take place in the weeks following.
Both are set to be tight votes, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats hoping to repeat recent by-election victories over the governing party, but while pollsters think that Pincher's Tamworth seat might be especially hard for the Tories to hold onto, they believe they could still have a fighting chance in Mid Bedfordshire.
Pincher's resignation on Thursday triggered the Tamworth by-election. He has sat as an independent in the previously Tory seat since he had the Conservative party whip removed last summer following allegations of groping two men in a central London club. Pollsters told PoliticsHome that the "scandalous" nature of Pincher's departure is likely to work in Labour's favour.
"It’s going to be very difficult for the Conservative candidate, whoever that ends up being, to distance themselves from the reason why there is a by-election in the seat.” Chris Hopkins, director of political research at Savanta said.
He said that while Savanta polling in the area last year indicated Tamworth would be a close run fight between Labour and the Conservatives at a general election, voters behave differently in by-elections, and that this one could prove an easy opportunity to cast a "protest vote".
Adam Drummond, the head of political and social research at Opinium, agreed that the Pincher factor, along with Keir Starmer having replaced Jeremy Corbyn as leader, was likely to "nudge it quite a way in Labour’s favour".
He believed that if Labour's 20-point leads in national polls ring true here, the Midlands seat should be a win for them for the first time since the Blair era, despite Pincher’s majority of almost 20,000.
“It’s got a big Tory majority at the moment, but if you go back to pre-Brexit time in 2005 Labour won, in 2001 they won it," he explained.
“If Labour really are streets ahead, even though it’s got a big Tory majority, that should be one that they will take from their side.”
But while Tamworth is set to be a two horse race between Labour and the Tories, in Dorries' former seat in Mid Bedfordshire, the fact that both the Lib Dems and Labour are giving it all they've got could actually offer Sunak some hope that his party will hold the seat. One exasperated Labour shadow minister said a loss there would be “existential” for the Lib Dems, which is why they believe Ed Davey’s party is refusing to clear the way for Labour.
“I think that there is a route to [the Conservatives] holding Mid Bedfordshire and it is the splitting of the anti-Tory vote,” Hopkins said.
While he still expects the Conservatives will lose both seats, he believed parties had approached the campaign as a "a three-way marginal", and again noted the role of different voter behaviours in by-elections: “How we vote at a general election is not how we vote at a by-election, and the Liberal Democrats are a by-election machine.”
Drummond described Mid-Bedfordshire as a “wildcard” where the three parties were all “quite close to each other”, something he felt could offer a narrow path to victory for the Tories.
“It is very possible to see the Tories coming through the middle with quite a low share of the vote with Labour and the Lib Dems splitting things," he said.
Matt Warman the Conservative MP for Boston and Skegness greeted the two latest by-elections as “unhelpful bits of news” for his party, but felt that seeing them as a bellwether for the next general election was a “mug’s game”.
“By and large governments do not win by-elections, especially when they have been in power for a reasonable amount of time” he told PoliticsHome.
He pointed to the Conservatives' recent by-election win in Uxbridge, where the party capitalised on local opposition to a Labour policy to expand the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) as an example of how they could “take advantage” of any issue that could swing a vote in their favour.
“There are ways in which circumstances can conspire either against you or in your favour,” Warman said.
“Really it's for the CCHQ [Conservative Campaign Headquarters] operation to try and take advantage of that as best as we can.”
PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe