Tory MPs Demand A "Fresh Vision" From Rishi Sunak After Sobering By-Elections
Rishi Sunak with new Conservative MP Steve Tuckwell in Uxbridge on Friday (Alamy)
Two crushing defeats and a tight win with a slashed majority proved to be sobering by-election results for the Conservative party on Friday morning, putting Prime Minister Rishi Sunak under renewed pressure to serve up a fresh vision to avoid electoral wipeout.
As Conservative MPs head to their constituencies for the six-week summer recess, they want Sunak to return in the Autumn with a more positive and upbeat vision, with attention already turning to his first speech to Tory party conference as leader in Manchester in October.
"It’s for Sunak in the Autumn to spell out his vision," said a former secretary of state.
The Prime Minister also faces the prospect of another difficult electoral examination when the party faces two more by-elections later this year, where they will be keen to avoid the devastating losses of Friday morning. In Somerton and Frome the Liberal Democrats reversed a Tory majority of more than 20,000, while Labour achieved a similar feat in Selby and Ainsty. While the Conservatives held Uxbridge and Ruislip, a majority of more than 7,000 was chopped down to just 495.
"Dreadful," is how one Tory source summarised the result. "Outer London is not going to be where we have a comeback."
As such, Labour is quietly confident they can overturn the near-25,000 Tory majority in Mid-Bedfordshire where voters will go to the polls when MP Nadine Dorries finally formalises her resignation. The Tories will also have a fight on their hands stopping Labour take Tamworth, which is expected to hold a by-election as a result of the eight-week suspension of current MP Chris Pincher over groping allegations.
The narrow win in Uxbridge and South Ruislip might not give the Tories much confidence, given it was largely driven by local opposition to Labour London mayor Sadiq Khan's expansion of the ultra low emissions zone (ULEZ) to outer reaches of the capital, rather than any obvious affection for the party's national vision.
While the Conservatives had a tough fight to keep hold of Boris Johnson's former seat, on Friday morning Sunak said the victory showed it was not "a done deal" that his party would lose the next election, due before the end of 2024.
An ex-Cabinet minister did not seem to agree, however, telling PoliticsHome that the Uxbridge win doesn't "tell us that our fight back has started, or that we have turned a corner".
But they did believe that the Conservative party's success in turning this by-election into a de facto referendum on ULEZ, showed they could possibly use local or "wedge" issues to expose chinks in Labour's armour, even while they lag behind the opposition in the polls.
"If something like ULEZ can disrupt Labour momentum, then Labour’s got a bit of a problem," they added.
But according to pollsters including Opinium's Adam Drummond, the problem for the Tories is that concern over ULEZ was such a hyperlocal issue to Uxbridge, that it could be difficult to replicate elsewhere.
"The Tories basically they found a very effective local referendum issue to make this specific by-election about, but unfortunately they can't apply that to the rest of the country," Drummond told PoliticsHome.
He was echoed by Scarlett Maguire, Director at JL Partners Polls, who said that while the Conservatives were "taking comfort" for keeping hold of this historically Tory seat, the "much more significant result" in the early hours of Friday was in Selby and Ainsty, Yorkshire, where Keir Starmer's Labour overturned a massive Tory majority of more than 20,000.
"Labour trounced the Conservatives in one of their strongholds, with the sort of swing not seen by the party since Tony Blair in the run up to 1997," said Maguire.
While some Tory figures took heart from the result in west London, others were left demoralised by the scale of their defeat to Labour in Yorkshire. It was the biggest Conservative majority ever overturned by Labour in any by-election, on a huge swing of nearly 24 per cent. Sunak's party also saw another large majority (19,000) fall to the Liberal Democrats, with Ed Davey's party adding Somerton and Frome to their list of striking by-election victories.
One Tory source said the party will be doing "a lot of soul searching" during the summer recess, and predicted that the list of Tory MPs who have announced they will not fight the next general election – which currently stands at 40 – could grow significantly when parliament returns in September.
“Many Tory MPs will be headed into recess ready to take a temperature check with their constituents, whether through surgeries, surveys or canvassing," they told PoliticsHome.
But not all Conservatives have succumbed to the gloom. Ex-Cabinet minister David Davis was sanguine about the results on Friday morning, telling PoliticsHome that former Conservative PM Margaret Thatcher suffered significant by-election losses before winning a three-figure majority at the 1987 general election.
“Next door to me in Ryedale went from a 16,000 Tory majority to a 6,000 liberal majority at the 1986 by-election, then back to us with a 9,000 majority when she got a stonking majority in 1987," he said. "It means little beyond the electorate giving us a kicking for understandable reasons.”
Conservative MPs who remain cautiously optimistic about their chances at the next general election insist voters remain unconvinced by Starmer and what he stands for, despite the opposition party's long period of big, double-digit leads in the opinion polls.
“Tony Blair had a narrative, it was new Britain and all that," one senior Conservative MP said.
"You don’t get that sense with Starmer. They’re going from one event to the next, without having knitted together what they’re all about."
But speaking to the BBC on Friday, leading pollster Sir John Curtice said the "only safe conclusion" to draw from Thursday's by-elections is that the Tories are "indeed in as much electoral trouble as the polls have been suggesting", and that Sunak "has got an awful amount of work to do".
Whether the Prime Minister can get his party out of this hole, and how, are the questions that will hang over Sunak and weigh heavy on the minds of Conservative MPs this summer.
Additional reporting by Tom Scotson.
PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe