Double By-Election Defeat Suggests No Conservative Seat Is Safe
The Conservative Party’s double by-election defeat could spell trouble for the Prime Minister and other senior Tories whose own seats hang in the balance.
In by-elections this week the Liberal Democrats seized victory in the previous Conservative stronghold of Tiverton and Honiton, overturning a 24,239-majority, while in Wakefield, Labour took the seat from the Tories majority of 3,358.
Boris Johnson only holds his own seat of Uxbridge and Ruislip with a majority of 7,210, and in May, YouGov projected that the Prime Minister would lose his seat if voters went to the polls this year and followed the same behaviours shown in the local elections.
Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab is even more vulnerable, with a majority of only 2,743 in Esher and Walton.
Political experts disagree on whether this will lead to senior Tories taking up more secure seats in the next general election.
Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University, said: “There’s a more or less honourable tradition of ‘big beasts’ doing the so-called ‘chicken run’, so I wouldn’t put it past any ministers – including the PM – to scramble for safer seats.”
If the next general election leads to a 1997-style landslide of people voting against the Conservatives, Bale believes we could see more than 150 Tory MPs kicked out of Westminster.
Following a narrowly won confidence vote in the Prime Minister and this week's double by-election defeat, there is a nervousness within the Tory party that going into the next general election with Johnson at the helm would doom them to further failure. Johnson nonetheless ploughs on as a result of no strong contenders to replace him.
“Nobody ever got rich betting on this particular collection of ministers growing a pair and insisting Johnson quit,” Bale said. “But if the by-elections are followed by the Tories dropping below 30 per cent in the polls, they may finally act.”
Jon Tonge, professor of British politics at the University of Liverpool, does not think Johnson will take the risk of changing seats.
“Electorally, switching seats would look terrible; you’re basically running up to higher hills,” he said. “The message sent to the electorate would be worse than what is already a bleak situation.”
The Tiverton and Honiton result in particular indicated a huge swing against the Conservatives in what was previously considered a ‘safe seat’.
Tonge argues the term ‘safe seat’ is overused when so many seats across the UK are marginal.
He said: “You just need any sort of swing against you to be in trouble, and that's what's happening to the Conservatives at the moment.
“Boris Johnson was making gains in Hartlepool last year. That just shows how things have changed.”
Many Cabinet ministers have already had major cause for concern in their constituencies this year, when the May local elections showed the ‘blue wall’ starting to crumble.
Supporters of Johnson, including Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries and Minister without Portfolio Nigel Adams, have insisted by-elections are not an indication of general election success. Pollsters, however, have suggested that this argument doesn't stack up.
While historical precedents show by-election losses do not necessarily lead to humiliation in the next general election, according to Tonge, they are still a crucial test of the public mood.
Tonge suggested that when the Tories lost Eastbourne to the Lib Dems in the 1990 by-election, it was a reflection of the party’s leadership rather than the party itself. Following a change of leadership from Margaret Thatcher to John Major shortly after, the Conservatives went on to win the next general election in 1992.
“It was clear that many in the country wanted a new Conservative leader. It wasn’t a move against the Conservative party, as 18 months later the Conservatives enjoyed the biggest win in British political history," he added.
“Now we are experiencing the same, and I suspect in these by-elections there was a strong anti-Johnson element.”
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