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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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The Rundown: By-Election Races Tighten Despite Tories’ Tough Week

4 min read

Labour shadow minister Stephanie Peacock and Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Olney join PoliticsHome's Alain Tolhurst and Adam Payne to look ahead to the double by-election next Thursday and reflect on another hectic week in Westminster.

The government looked to rip up the Northern Ireland protocol, lost a legal challenge preventing the first relocation flight to Rwanda from taking off, and then Boris Johnson’s ethics adviser resigned.

Amid a flurry of difficult headlines for the Prime Minister, just 10 days on from narrowly winning a confidence vote in his leadership, his party appears on course to lose the ballots both in Tiverton and Honiton and Wakefield, after the races were triggered when the incumbent Conservative MPs were forced to resign.

But despite being heavy favourites at the bookmakers both Peacock and Olney sought to play down their respective chances as Labour tries to win back Wakefield having held it for decades prior to 2019, and the Lib Dems attempt to overhaul a massive 24,000 vote majority in Tiverton and Honiton.

Olney, who famously won a by-election herself unseating Tory minister Zac Goldsmith in 2016, said the odds “do not reflect the size of the challenge in Tiverton”, saying for them to win they would need the the biggest swing in a by-election since the Tories were defeated in Liverpool Wavertree in 1935.

Labour are also widely expected to win comfortably in Wakefield, with some bookmakers offering odds of 1/100 that the west Yorkshire constituency flips red.

But Peacock said a Labour win was not a foregone conclusion. “What I'd say about about Wakefield is it's been written up by the media as this sort of post industrial “Red Wall” seat,” she explained.

“Actually, it's always been pretty marginal. At the last election, the majority was the biggest majority any winning candidate has had in that seat since 2005, and I think it was just over 1,000 in 2010.”

Peacock pointed to the fact various parts of the seat “regularly return Conservative councillors”. 

“I think we've also got to remember that Labour has only won one seat back at a by-election in the last 25 years, that’s the context in which this is taking place,” she added. 

The big story of the week - the government’s failed plan to begin sending asylum seekers to Rwanda - is also having an effect on the doorstep, according to the Lib Dems.

Olney said the controversial policy isn’t even “appealing to the people it's meant to appeal to”, and is putting off natural Tory voters in east Devon seat.

But a Conservative Party spokesperson has dismissed the claim, and said the "majority of supporters" their candidate Helen Hurford has spoken to on the campaign trail say they back the government’s policy on Rwanda.

Olney said she met consistent opposition to the policy when she spent an afternoon with the Honiton Carers Network and her party’s candidate Richard Foord talking to older voters about immigration.

“That's one of their big concerns, they were all Tory voters, they're big Boris fans, so they were not our natural constituency,” she explained.

“But we had a very good-natured conversation on the subject of immigration and about their concerns, and an exchange of views.

“But at the end of that, they were all like, ‘but we don't agree with the Rwanda policy’.

“These are exactly the voters that I think Boris is trying to appeal to with this sort of policy. But even they don't like the idea of Rwanda.

“I think it’s really failing not just on its own terms, but I don't think it's even appealing to the people it's meant to appeal to.”

The Conservatives have a massive majority of 24,239 from the last election in 2019, but after the serving MP Neil parish was forced to resign over watching pornography in the House of Commons, the Liberal Democrats have been eyeing up another by-election victory to add to their wins unseating Tories in North Shropshire and Chesham and Amersham in the past year, and have been bouyed by recent success in last month's local elections.

  • Listen to this week’s episode of The Rundown, out today, for the full discussion

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