Boris Johnson is suffering a further blow to his leadership this morning after the Conservatives lost two by-elections overnight. Labour took Wakefield from the Tories by 4,925 votes – a swing of 12.7 per cent. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats managed to overturn a Tory majority of 24,239 in Tiverton and Honiton – beating the Conservatives by 6,144 votes, with a swing of nearly 30 per cent.
The opposition leaders have been quick to herald their successes. Labour’s Keir Starmer has said the result is ‘a clear judgement’ on the Tory government while Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said the result in Tiverton and Honiton equals the ‘biggest by-election victory our country has ever seen’ pointing to how it is the largest majority ever overturned in a by-election.
So, what does this all mean for Boris Johnson and the Tory party? Ahead of the vote, there was a sense among Downing Street aides that losses were likely – and even that they had already been priced in. Over the past few months, Johnson has faced plenty of negative headlines on partygate as well as feeling the heat over cost of living. Had Johnson managed to hold onto one of the seats, it would have been spun as a great success given the very low expectations. The message in government has been that not too much should be read from a mid-term by-election and there is still time to turn things around.
The level of internal unhappiness within the Tory party was evidenced earlier this month when Johnson’s MPs triggered a no-confidence vote in his leadership. Johnson won it and is technically safe from challenge now for 12 months (while there has been talk of changing the rules to allow a challenge before then, no one expects this to happen so soon). It follows that there were some rebels who wanted to wait until after the by-elections on the grounds that it would mark a moment of peril for the Prime Minister and increase the likelihood of him losing it. The fact that they didn’t means that for now there are limited options for MPs when it comes to how they respond to the vote.
Already questions are being asked about the Conservative Campaign Headquarters operation. Oliver Dowden has resigned as party chairman. There have been rumours of a mini-reshuffle some time after the by-election as a way for Johnson to show he is taking charge and move the news agenda on. For now, however, the Prime Minister is out of the country in Rwanda for a meeting of Commonwealth leaders. That won’t stop Tory MPs from doing some serious soul-searching when it comes to what these results mean. They will fuel fears that the party is being squeezed by Labour in some parts of the ‘red wall’ and by the Liberal Democrats in the south. Tory MPs with seats where the Lib Dems are the second largest party will be particularly nervous.
When it comes to Boris Johnson’s future as Tory leader, the line that his supporters tend to use when trying to convince Tory MPs to stay on side is that he is a proven election winner. Thursday’s votes will add to concerns in the party that this is no longer the case.