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Tories Have A "Hill To Climb" After By-Election Defeat, But Some Still See "A Path" Through

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner in Chester on Friday with Samantha Dixon (Alamy)

5 min read

A leading pollster has said that while the Conservative party has a “big hill to climb” if they have any chance of victory at the next general election, they could still swerve defeat if they manage to convince people they can offer change.

Labour held their seat in the City of Chester in a by-election this week, with a significantly increased majority, as polls have suggested that Keir Starmer's Labour party is heading for an empathic victory at the next general election. 

Speaking after her victory, the constituency’s new MP Samantha Dixon told broadcasters that people in the city are "fed up of the government" meaning more have "turned to Labour values". She kept hold of the seat for Labour with more than 60 per cent of the vote, and a majority of almost 11,000. 

Labour had been expected to win the contest but the 17,309 votes overall represented a 13.8 per cent swing from the Tories to Labour, and a much larger majority than the 6,164 recorded in 2019. 

Three years ago, the Conservatives won 38.3 per cent of the vote, however on Thursday, that was reduced to 22.4 per cent. 

The numbers overnight reflect national polling in recent months which have consistently shown Labour to hold a double-digit lead over Rishi Sunak’s party. 

James Johnson, co-founder of J.L Partners and who used to run polling in No 10, told PoliticsHome that the Conservatives are in “difficult territory” but believed it would be “premature” to write them off entirely with a possible two years to go before the next election. He said the result is consistent with voting intention trends generally, but questioned how much could be read into it in terms of predicting the next government. 

“I think that if Liz Truss was still in power things would be a lot worse, and I also think that would be true if Boris Johnson had come back,” he said. 

“Yes there is a big hill to climb for the Conservatives, but there is a path to do so. 

“The public are at their most volatile in terms of voting preference than they have ever been.” 

He described voters as “very frustrated” with the Tories, but noted that "actually Rishi Sunak’s personal ratings are quite good, and there are still big hesitations about Labour and Keir Starmer."

He added: “If all things remain the same as they are now up to 2024, then based on that by-election, based on the polling, you would see Labour doing very well. But there is time for [the Conservatives] to close the gap.” 

Johnson suggested that voters will back whoever they think is best placed to deliver a change, and while “that might sound like ‘oh, that’s Labour because they’re not the government’," but he felt the Conservatives could still occupy that space. 

He continued: “It's very possible that the Conservatives could become that candidate again, just like they did under Boris Johnson. So 2019 was an election about change and the reason Theresa May didn't do so well in 2017 was because it was an election about continuity.” 

But nonetheless, Johnson believed the Conservatives could not afford to dismiss the dire polling they currently face, even if the Chester by-election itself was of limited significance. 

“We know the polls are right," he said. "We know the Conservatives are in difficult territory, but in a seat that actually the Conservatives don't really need to win, I'm not sure it tells us a huge amount.”

Similarly, YouGov's Beth Kühnel Mann said that by their figures "it does look like Labour would win a majority. But obviously, this is midterm, a lot can change in that time." 

She told PoliticsHome:  "Labour have had a really solid lead in the polls for a while now since around the end of September. And that really escalated under Liz Truss. Sunak has come in and it has settled slightly, but we're still really seeing that big lead of around 20 to 25 points. And so we're currently on around 22 per cent Conservative, 45 per cent Labour." 

The Chester by-election was triggered by the resignation of former Labour MP Christian Matheson, who stepped down after a Parliamentary watchdog recommended a four-week suspension from the Commons after allegations of sexual misconduct were upheld. 

Speaking after Dixon's victory on Friday morning, Labour's deputy leader Angela Rayner said people are concerned about the cost of living and have sent a message to the government that they want things to change. 

"They're angry with the Conservatives who have crashed the economy, the sleaze that's engulfed them, the constant bickering and not being able to get Britain moving again," Rayner told broadcasters. 

"Everyone feels like it's a constant backlog, and they're damaging our economy and they're damaging people's prospects and the people of the City of Chester have given a huge message to the Conservatives that they want change and they want a Labour government."

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