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"Grim" By-Election Defeats Leave Rishi Sunak Battling Crushed Tory Morale

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (Alamy)

5 min read

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will return from parliamentary recess to a restless and despondent Conservative party after another disastrous set of by-election results further diminished Tory hopes of electoral recovery in 2024.

A former secretary of state said that Labour's wins in formerly Tory seats of Wellingborough and Kingswood in the early hours of Friday morning felt nothing less than "grim" for Conservatives. 

"It's difficult to see anything other than a Labour Government with a reasonably decent majority," they told PoliticsHome.

The fact that Labour's victory in Kingswood, where Keir Starmer's party overturned a Tory majority of more than 11,000, felt like a fairly unremarkable result speaks to the depth of the electoral hole that the Tory party finds itself as the next general election approaches. Sunak must call a vote this year.

By-election headlines on Friday were largely dominated by the result in Wellingborough, where Labour destroyed a Tory majority of 18,000 with a 28.6 per cent swing from the Conservatives, the second largest recorded in any by-election held in the post-war period. 

"These by-elections confirm what is also evident from the polling averages: nothing has changed. Labour remain dominant, and on course for a crushing win," Rob Ford, Professor of Political Science at the University of Manchester, wrote in his latest edition of The Swingometer in the wake of the results.  

Ford's analysis of by-elections since the current Conservative government was elected in 2019 will be ominous and miserable reading for No.10 and Conservative MPs. It showed that the average swing achieved by Labour under Starmer (14 per cent) since the end of 2021 is significantly bigger than what opposition parties have averaged historically (9 per cent) before going on to win general elections.

Responding to the pair of defeats on Friday morning, Sunak acknowledged that his party "had work to do" to regain public support if they are to have any hope of remaining in Government. 

But his defence that "mid-term by-elections are always difficult for incumbent governments" is unlikely to pacify the growing frustration among Conservative MPs who feel his government is not doing enough to hold onto voters that have kept the Tories in power for 14 years. 

"We've all got a lot of work to do over the course of this year to prove we are worth voting for," Conservative Mansfield MP Ben Bradley told PoliticsHome.

Henry Smith, the Conservative MP for Crawley, is one of many backbenchers who argue that the recent surge of right wing party Reform – which enjoyed its best yet electoral showing in Wellingborough with 13 per cent of the vote – showed that his party had lost its way politically. "A sizeable chunk of voters want to see conservative policies from their Conservative government," he told PoliticsHome

Rehman Chishti, MP for Gillingham and Rainham in the Tory heartlands of Kent, said Sunak "needs to quickly set out a clear vision and start inspiring the Conservative voters to turn out and vote, and deliver on the commitments he has made".

The defeats will likely encourage Conservative MPs to pile yet more pressure on Sunak and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt to make sweeping tax cuts at next month's Spring Budget, despite confirmation earlier in the week that the UK has entered recession

The pair have publicly promised further reductions, but whether they go far enough to satisfy irritable backbenchers in the bleakly revised economic climate seems increasingly doubtful.

The Prime Minister insisted on Friday that he intended to "stick to the plan". Downing Street remains steadfast in its view that they have the best chance of avoiding defeat at the next general election if voters are able to see early signs of an economic recovery by the time polling day arrives. Senior Tories have sought to paint Starmer and Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves as a threat to any such economic recovery who will take the country "back to square one".

George Osborne, the former Tory chancellor said on his podcast Political Currency that he had "no doubt" that recession "will cast a pall over the government's economic message".

"My heart used to sink when I would see those GDP numbers. And if I had a negative quarter, I just knew it would colour the political debate for the next three months," he continued. "The government will have a tougher time with their economic message." 

The growing consensus among Conservative MPs is that Sunak's strategy just will not be enough to prevent the Tories falling into opposition at the next election. 

"I think everyone knows what is likely to happen," said one former Cabinet minister who had already accepted the likelihood of defeat.

In a focus group carried out by More In Common a week before Thursday's by-elections, the scale of the Conservatives' unpopularity with people who had voted for them in 2019 in Wellinborough was especially striking.

"After 13 years, I think there’s got to be a change," NHS worker Millie told researchers. "I’m not saying anyone else out there is going to be great, but they’ve got to be better than this."

Claire, an admin assistant, explained: “I get up, go to work but get no support whatsoever – where does it stop? Everything’s going up. I’m dreading the council tax letter saying that’s gone up another £10 a month. I don’t have Netflix, I don’t have Sky, what can I cut back on?"

Barbara, 74, said: “I think [the Conservatives are] trying their best, but I just don’t think they’re any good. Give someone else a chance."

Additional reporting by Zoë Crowther.

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