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James Forsyth

Is Boris heading for a 1997 moment?

We're starting to see serious tactical voting

Is Boris heading for a 1997 moment?
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Why was the Tory defeat in 1997 so heavy? One of the reasons was that the anti-Tory vote tended to coalesce around the candidate most likely to defeat the Tory in each place. Tactical voting in 1997 cost the Tories 30 seats, turning a bad defeat into a catastrophe.

Last night provides evidence that this is happening again, that in British politics there are now two blocs, the Tories and the anti-Tories. Take Tiverton. In the last two elections, Labour came second there. But in this by-election, they lost their deposit as their vote share dropped by 16 per cent. 

This isn’t because voters in rural Devon are particularly unpersuaded by Keir Starmer but because anti-Tory voters quickly realised that the Liberal Democrats had the better chance of unseating the Tories and so turned to them. In Wakefield, we also saw tactical voting – albeit on a less dramatic scale. The Lib Dem vote halved and the party also lost their deposit and got fewer votes than Richard Tice's Reform UK.

At the moment, the polls suggest that the left bloc of the electorate – Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens – is around 60 per cent. If these voters vote tactically, the results will be devastating for the Tories.

One problem for the Tories is how long they have been in power, the longer you are in office the more politics splits into pro-you and anti-you. Another problem is that Boris Johnson is, at the moment, more of a motivating force for the anti-Tory vote than the Tory vote.

The question for the Tories now is how best to defuse the threat posed by tactical voting. The more they try and pump up their base with red meat policies, the more they risk polarising voters at large and eliciting a tactical voting response.

As Tory MPs think about what to do next and whether they should change the rules to allow another no-confidence vote, I suspect the question of how to try and reduce tactical voting will be one of the things foremost in their mind.

Tune in to this special episode of Spectator TV discussing the by-election with Fraser Nelson, James Forsyth and Cindy Yu:

Written byJames Forsyth

James Forsyth is political editor of The Spectator.

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