ULEZ Curveball Is Threatening To Derail A Labour By-Election Victory In Boris Johnson's Uxbridge
Labour leader Keir Starmer, Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves and the party's Uxbridge candidate Danny Beales (Alamy)
The Labour Party is hopeful it can take Boris Johnson's former seat in a symbolic victory at the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election on Thursday, but the salience of Sadiq Khan's contentious Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) has made the Tories believe they might still have a fighting chance.
It will be a "spectacular result" if Labour candidate Danny Beales becomes the MP for this west London seat next week, according to Steve Reed, the shadow justice secretary who is running the Labour campaign.
This suburban constituency, located at the furthest reaches of London's Tube map, has only elected only Tories since its inception in 2010.
The former seat that it essentially replaced, Uxbridge, returned Conservatives to the House of Commons for the vast majority of its 125-year existence – and elected nobody but Tories for the last 40 years of its life. This included 1997, when so many other parts of the country were turned red by Tony Blair's Labour landslide.
At the last three general elections, its voters have delivered victory to former prime minister Boris Johnson, who triggered this by-election when he resigned over findings he had knowingly misled parliament over parties in Downing Street during Covid lockdowns. The weight of Johnson's reputation is something that Reed, the MP for Croydon North, is keen to stress one week out from polling day.
“It’s all to play for here," he told PoliticsHome on a rainy summer day in Uxbridge town centre.
"We are not complacent in the slightest and we are going to fight for every single vote. There's no history of Labour MPs in Uxbridge and the fact the most recent MP is a former Conservative prime minster is important to people."
Uxbridge and South Ruislip is one three by-elections that will take place on 20 July, and holding onto each seat, previously held by Conservatives, poses a major challenge for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, whose party has lingered behind in the polls for months.
Keir Starmer's Labour is in a strong position to claim victory in Selby & Ainsty, north Yorkshire, despite the Tory majority being over 20,000 after Nigel Adams resigned in an act of solidarity with Johnson. Sunak also faces a headache in Somerton and Frome, where Ed Davey's Liberal Democrats are confident of overturning another big Conservative majority (19,000) in response to David Warburton vacating the seat following drug abuse and allegations of harrassment, which he denies.
With Labour continuing to enjoy large, double-digit leads over the Conservatives in the opinion polls, and Tory MPs feeling increasingly gloomy about their prospects, you could be forgiven for thinking that Uxbridge and South Ruislip would be a pretty straightforward Labour victory, with the Tory majority there being the smallest of the three seats up for grabs, at just over 7,000.
A senior Tory this week told PoliticsHome that the doorstep response in the country "had got worse in the last month". Another Conservative MP said he had started to detect "pity" from voters, rather than fury. "When people have stopped being being angry and have started pitying you, that's when they know that they have transitioned away from you," he said.
Another Tory backbencher put it a bit more bluntly: "The path to victory [at the next general election] hasn't completely disappeared. But it was narrow, and now it's fucking shaky."
But the contest in this particular seat has been complicated by significant local opposition to the hugely contentious expansion of ULEZ, Labour London Mayor Sadiq Khan's plan to implement a daily charge on non-compliant vehicles beyond the city centre to more suburban parts of the capital, like Uxbridge. The ULEZ policy was first announced by Johnson when he was mayor.
A Conservative MP who campaigned in Uxbridge recently estimated that the issue was brought up without prompt by 60 per cent of the people they had spoken to on doorsteps.
"When we started campaigning it almost immediately kicked off about ULEZ," a Tory source on the ground said. "People are sick to the back teeth of being ignored by Sadiq Khan and the London Labour party, and see this a way of sending a message to Mayor Khan.”
One local man, who didn't want to be named, told PoliticsHome that his friend had just paid many thousands of pounds on upgrading their car to avoid the daily £12.50 charge, and complained that Londoners had not been given enough time to prepare for the tighter rules.
The issue is undoubtedly a tricky one for the Labour Party – which finds itself in the slightly awkward position of having a parliamentary candidate in Beales who opposes the Labour mayor's plan to expand ULEZ. PoliticsHome understands that some members of the Shadow Cabinet have expressed frustration with Khan's handling of the policy, complaining that he has not done enough to reach out to Londoners who oppose the planned expansion.
Khan, whose ULEZ policy is designed to reduce the number of high-polluting vehicles being used in the capital, sought to play down the difference in opinion last week, telling a City Hall meeting that he and Beales "completely agree" on a "whole host of issues".
A Labour source on the ground in west London acknowledged that ULEZ had the potential to be a "moblising issue" for Tory activists, helping them convince voters who are currently undecided to back Conservative candidate Steve Tuckwell on Thursday.
It is no surprise, then, that those in Conservative Party Headquarters have been accused of trying turn this by-election campaign into a de facto referendum on the issue of ULEZ.
"They're fighting a single issue campaign," said Reed, who said “by far” the most talked about issues in Uxbridge were the cost of living crisis and the sorry state of local Hillingdon Hospital, which shadow health secretary Wes Streeting has described as "the worst hospital I have ever seen” when he visited it late last month.
“There is masonry falling down and water pouring through the roof. It’s not a safe place for staff, never mind patients," Reed continued.
"People see it as symbolising the decay of the National Health Service. That’s why Labour has pledged to deliver a new state of the art hospital in Hillingdon.”
Research by JL Partners Polls published last week found that cost of living pressures like energy and food prices were comfortably the most important issues for voters in Uxbridge, with NHS waiting times and crime and policing also ranking highly. Opposition to ULEZ was fourth in terms of perceived importance, and was the only issue on which the Tories led.
The same polling put Labour eight points ahead of the Conservatives, and a Tory source admits that it will be "difficult" to prevent a Labour win here, despite fury over ULEZ.
“There are far more important things to worry about [than ULEZ]," says a man in his sixties who is having a coffee on Uxbridge high street. “Just look at the state of the country. What has got better in 13 years? Your living? The health service? Education? Transport?
"You name it: nothing has got better."
You don't have to look far or hard in Uxbridge to find clues that a by-election is a week away.
A suited Boris Johnson impersonator strolls down the high street to the bewilderment of locals, while a TV crew camped outside The Chimes shopping centre fishes for willing interviewees. It isn't long before Piers Corbyn, the climate change-denying brother of ex-Labour leader Jeremy, is blasting the music of Bob Dylan from a weathered Vauxhall Cavalier, handing out glossy leaflets which promise to thwart both ULEZ and 'the great reset', a conspiracy theory that global elites deliberately used lockdown measures to bring about a global economic collapse and new world government.
Sunak's wife, Akshata Murty, made a surprise visit to knock on doors with Tuckwell.
Voters here can expect fanfare to increase even more as polling day draws closer.
A Labour win in Johnson's former seat would hand Starmer a major symbolic victory in his bid to march his party back into power at the next general election, which is due to be called before the end of next year. But a surprise win for the Conservatives, while earned in unique circumstances, would be a timely boost for the Prime Minister as tries to prove that there is life in his party just yet.
PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe