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Sat, 20 July 2024

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By Ben Guerin
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Tory MPs Are Rattled After Their Double By-Election Disaster

Labour leader Keir Starmer celebrates his party's victory in the Tamworth by-election with candidate Sarah Edwards (Alamy)

5 min read

The scale of the Tory by-election defeats on Thursday night was a wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee moment for some Conservative MPs, but Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is not planning to deviate from his existing plan for turn around the party's fortunes.

There was "astonishment" among some Conservative MPs when they awoke to news of Labour's seismic victories in the Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire by-elections on Friday morning.

The results, which saw Keir Starmer's party benefit from massive swings of nearly 24% and 21% respectively, were described as "exceptional" by polling veteran Sir John Curtice, who rather ominously for Conservative MPs likened them to Tory by-election losses in the run-up to former Labour prime minister Tony Blair's landslide victory at the 1997 general election. 

With Labour having enjoyed double-digit leads over the Tories in the opinion polls since late last year, Conservative MPs have for a while acknowledged that winning the next general election, which must be called before the end of 2024, would be an uphill challenge for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

But the scale of the Tory defeats in the early hours of Friday morning prompted many MPs to conclude that the hole which their party finds itself in is even deeper and darker than they had realised.

"It's going to be a mammoth task pulling that back over the next year," acknowledged one senior Conservative and former secretary of state as the dust was settling on Friday morning.

"Turn the lights off when you leave," another despondent Tory ex-minister put it, bluntly.

There was particular shock among Tory MPs over the result in Mid Bedfordshire, a seat that has been Conservative the entire time it has existed, which privately even Labour figures had not expected to win.

The contest to replace former Cabinet minister Nadine Dorries, who gradually resigned as the the MP for Mid Bedfordshire after accusing Sunak of blocking her from receiving a peerage, was seen as the most likely hold for the Tories on the night.

Conservative MPs were impressed by their candidate Festus Akinbusoye, and the prospect of the anti-Tory vote being split between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, neither of which were prepared to make way for the other despite warnings that it could help the Conservatives come through the middle, prompted cautious Tory optimism that they would just about hold onto the seat.

In the run-up to polling day, many Conservative MPs had admitted that if they went on to lose Mid Bedfordshire, "the glimmer of hope has gone".

In the end, Labour candidate Alistair Strathern, a former teacher, overturned a Conservative majority of over 24,000 — the biggest majority ever lost in a by-election.

Speaking on his podcast Political Currency in the run-up to Thursday's by-elections, former Conservative chancellor George Osborne said that defeat to the Labour Party in Mid Bedfordshire would be "really disastrous" for his party, and spell electoral armageddon.

"The Conservatives will think: Tamworth was hard," said Osborne.

"The MP [Chris Pincher] resigned under a cloud. This is the kind of seat that in the 1980s and early 1990s, the Tories did lose and went on to win general elections.

"But if they've also lost Mid Bedfordshire, Armageddon is coming for the Tory party."

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaving 10 Downing Street (Alamy)

The more sanguine Conservative MPs continue to argue evidence suggests previous Tory voters are currently staying at home, rather than switching to Labour, and that PM Sunak will be able to persuade them to return to the party in time for the next general election. 

For weeks, the Downing Street strategy for reducing the Labour Party's leads in the polls has been focused on winning back past Tory voters who are currently undecided. The No 10 theory is that these people are not enamoured by Starmer and could be persuaded to return to voting for the Conservatives. Isaac Levido, the Tory elections strategist, relayed this message to MPs at the Conservative party conference in Manchester earlier this month in an effort to "gee" them up.

But following the huge defeats on Thursday night, a growing number of Tories are starting to question this theory, arguing that it is overly-optimistic and underestimates the strength of negative public feeling towards the Conservative party after 13 years in office.

There are also concerns in Conservative ranks that the party elections machine, which has delivered four consecutive general election victories, is running low on energy and morale as it prepares to take on a buoyant and well-resourced Labour Party at the next general election.

One Tory campaigner said party members seemed to be "running out of steam".

There were also complaints from activists on the ground that the data given to them during campaigning in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire was not up to scratch because the fact that both seats had long been deemed safe by Conservative party strategists meant that the party focused its campaigning efforts elsewhere.

The Prime Minister was not in the country on Friday morning to respond to the two huge defeats. Instead he was in the Middle East, where he continued his meetings with leaders in the region as part of the government's response to the ongoing crisis in Israel and Gaza. 

But Westminster should not expect a major change in tack from Sunak when he returns to the UK, despite the scale of the Tory party's defeats in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire.

No 10 remains convinced that its strategy of tackling the cost-of-living through reducing inflation, combined with a message of "change" and trying to find dividing lines with Labour, remains the right one to maximise Conservative chances of avoiding defeat at the next general election.

As one Tory put it to PoliticsHome: "We’re either completely over already, or the approach we are taking will eventually cut through in a general election."

In that spirit, Andrew Bowie, the energy minister, insisted on Friday that Sunak administration was on "right course" despite suffering two electoral losses of historic proportions the night before.

"There is always room for improvement," he told Sky News.

"But we are absolutely determined that we are on the right course. We are delivering for the British people. And people are going to start feeling that very soon."

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Read the most recent article written by Adam Payne - Voters Feel More Optimistic After Labour's Election Win

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