Conservatives Brace For Triple By-Election With Odds Stacked Against Them
Uxbridge could be closely fought between Conservatives and Labour over the contentious ULEZ scheme (Alamy)
As by-election polling day approaches in three English constituencies, the odds appear stacked against the Conservatives for hopes that they'll hold onto seats vacated by their MPs.
The majority of polls show a strong likelihood of the Conservatives losing all three seats and nationally, Labour have been consistently polling ahead of the Tories by around 20 points in recent months.
The governing party is all too aware of the risk of a triple loss: At the Tory Reform Group summer party in Westminster on Tuesday evening, when the word “by-election” was mentioned, a number of Conservative MPs in attendance pulled a face.
Education Secretary Gillian Keegan gave a speech to the gathering in which she lamented the damage done to the Conservative brand after the political chaos that saw an unprecedented churn of ministers and prime ministers last year.
“We have had some difficult times, we did go off course,” she said.
“We have to rebuild aspects of our reputation and we still have to do that. Our brand image has been damaged, and let’s be honest, we can see why the polls are the way they are today.”
One Conservative MP told PoliticsHome she believes there is “still too much anger” towards the party for them to hold onto any of the seats.
Downing Street was refusing to “speculate” on Thursday’s possible results, but the Prime Minister's spokesperson stressed that by-elections are usually “very difficult” for parties in power.
“The election that the Conservative Party is most focused on is the general election,” they said on Wednesday afternoon.
Chris Hopkins, Political Research Director at polling company Savanta UK, told PoliticsHome he would be “surprised” if the Conservative had any success on Thursday.
“The average national lead for the Labour Party in Westminster is around 18 points and that is enough of a swing to overturn Selby and definitely be enough to overturn Uxbridge,” he said.
“I would be very surprised if the Conservatives hold any of them tomorrow.”
With the odds against the Conservatives, he suggested there could be a “narrative shift” if Labour fail to win both Uxbridge and Selby, and that the opposition party would be “very disappointed”.
Hopkins argued that the fortunes of each party should be judged on the outcomes of all six possible by-elections, with contests also expected in the coming months in Rutherglen and Hamilton West in Scotland, Tamworth in the midlands and Mid Bedfordshire in the south.
The founder of the Electoral Calculus polling website Martin Baxter warned against using by-election results as a prediction for national voting intentions, with speculation rife about what these set of results will indicate for the Tories' chances of holding onto power when the next national poll takes place in 2024.
“By-elections can be a little bit special,” he said.
“People can vote differently in by-elections from how they voted in general elections in the past and differently in how they might go to the next general election.
“That makes them both tricky to predict, and also tricky to draw very detailed inferences from the results.”
Using data from national trends, Electoral Calculus has predicted that it will be particularly tough for the Conservatives to keep hold of Uxbridge, as the Tories have gradually been losing their grip on the Greater London region over recent years.
If the Conservatives do lose all three seats, it is is predicted that Sunak will carry out a cabinet reshuffle, perhaps even as early as Friday, to reset the leadership going into parliamentary recess. It is also rumoured that Labour leader Keir Starmer is likely to carry out a shadow cabinet reshuffle early next week, which would put shadow minister roles in line with recent changes to government departments.
Campaigners on the ground across the constituencies have sought to retain a tight focus on individual local issues that have so far defined each by-election.
While the campaign in Uxbridge and Ruislip has attracted particular national attention for being the former seat of former prime minister Boris Johnson, it has also become a de facto referendum on the extension of the ULEZ scheme, with the Conservatives exploiting the Labour candidate's awkward position of being at odds with Labour London Mayor Sadiq Khan on the issue.
A Labour source for the Uxbridge campaign told PoliticsHome that “Westminster bubble” issues are not often mentioned by voters on the doorstep: which might be good news for Labour after a tough week in which Keir Starmer received a backlash from his own party over his decision to retain the Tories' two-child benefit cap if Labour were in government.
The government welcomed news on Wednesday morning that high inflation has fallen more than expected, but the Labour campaigner argued this will make little difference to the by-election result when people only care about the real impact of the cost of living crisis on their everyday lives, with high mortgage rates being a “big factor” in why people are getting turned off the Tories.
However, the contest is still expected to go “down to the wire” in Uxbridge, where Labour haven’t won since 1966, making any Labour win in this by-election a historic victory.
In Selby and Ainsty, resident have said they feel “left behind” by politicians in Westminster, which Labour, which is trageting this seat, has sought to characterise as the failure of thirteen years of Conservative government nationally.
A Conservative source said that their candidate Claire Holmes has emphasised her credentials as a local councillor to convince residents she would prioritise local issues, in what appears to be an attempt to distance herself personally from Labour's line of attack.
While the Tories would be “delighted” with a win, a campaigner said it would not feel like a meaningful victory in terms of the national picture for the party, or act as prediction of outcome in a general election. As the constituency’s boundaries are set to change in the next general election, voting intentions in Selby and Ainsty will be difficult to predict.
In the south west constituency of Somerton and Frome, the Liberal Democrats are the likely frontrunners, although the anti-Conservative vote is expected to be split between the Lib Dems, Labour and the Green Party.
Many “true-blue” life-long Conservative voters in the area are believed to be likely to change their vote in this by-election.
A Lib Dem campaigner told PoliticsHome that they have noticed a shift this week with Labour and Green voters considering voting tactically to get Tories out of the seat.
They claimed the Tories have ramped up the scale of their campaign in the last 24 hours and put out more signs on the roadsides. The Lib Dem campaigner, however, said he thinks this will only encourage more people to vote tactically in favour of the Lib Dems.
The impact of the impact of the cost of living crisis and high mortgage rates has appeared to matter as much as local issues on doorsteps in Somerton and Frome, just as in Uxbridge and Selby.
With an older population who are relatively politically engaged, they also care about the integrity of politicians and express frustration with stories about Westminster sleaze – particularly as former MP David Warburton resigned over drug use and allegations of sexual harassment, which he denies.
Campaigners from across the political spectrum were keen to emphasise that is all still to play for when polling stations open on Thursday morning, but considering the circumstances around each seat, the Conservatives would be thrilled to even hold onto even one one.
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