An electoral pincer: the Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton by-elections and the peril the results could spell for the Government

On Thursday, voters will go to the polls in the Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton constituencies in a pair of by-elections that could have seismic consequences for both of the UK’s main political parties.

It is often said that by-elections are an opportunity for voters to let off steam, and are often a more accurate reflection of the national political mood than local elections. In this case, it would appear there is a fair bit to be let out.

Wakefield, where the Conservatives triumphed with over a 3,000 vote majority in 2019, is now considered lost by all but the most optimistic Conservative sources, with a poll from the Sunday Times and JL Partners earlier this month showing Labour ahead by 20 points. This tallies with findings from YouGov, showing that the Red Wall – the swathes of former Labour seats across the North and Midlands that the Conservatives won in 2019 – is set to return almost entirely to Labour.

This creates a separate risk for Labour leader Keir Starmer, in that the situation is considered so bleak for the Conservatives that nothing less than an overwhelming victory will meet expectations – a narrow win only is likely to lead to questions from within the party over his ability to capitalise on the Conservatives’ political woes and severely dent his political authority.

If anything, the situation in Tiverton and Honiton is even more worrying for the Conservatives. Won in 2019 with a 24,000 vote majority, the seat is now under serious threat from the resurgent Liberal Democrats, who will be looking to build on strong local elections results with an upset victory. Such a victory would be the largest by-election swing since 1935, and with Liberal Democrat internal polling reportedly has showing two parties tied on 45% each, is much in reach.

That Tiverton and Honiton is even in play should worry the Conservatives. What will worry them more is the potential fate of the dozens of other seats in what were formerly considered Conservative heartlands in the Shires and South, most of which have far smaller majorities than Tiverton and Honiton.

The primary cause of this desperate situation for the Conservatives is none other than their own party leader. Since mid-January, when the Partygate scandal took flight with damaging revelations about the Prime Minister’s own personal conduct during the pandemic, voters in focus groups, polls and on doorsteps have consistently cited his behaviour as their main reason for not voting Conservative, with the current toxicity of his personal brand reflected by a recent JL Partners word cloud in which the word most commonly associated with him by voters was ‘liar’.

So while the Conservatives may be staring at an electoral pincer now, with Labour threatening from the North and Midlands and the Liberal Democrats resurgent in the South, they can still manufacture their own escape. What the polls and focus groups have also indicated is that the toxicity of the Prime Minister’s personal brand has not – yet – spread to that of the party as a whole, suggesting a change in leader could yet rescue the party’s political fortunes.

If the Prime Minister’s reputation as an election-winner has not already been destroyed by the events of 2022 thus far, loss of two totemic seats under his watch is likely to dispel any notion among wavering Conservative MPs who stood by him in the confidence vote earlier this month that this can be recovered. What happens next will be up to them.

 


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Luca Ingrassia