Over the course of the past two months, we’ve had three by-elections in England. One of them was a huge Tory gain in a previously safe Labour seat. Another was a Lib Dem by-election victory over the Conservatives in the London commuter belt. Then, yesterday, Labour held Batley and Spen, a seat that has been theirs since 1997. On paper, this wasn’t a bad run of results for Boris Johnson, as head of a party that has been in government for 11 years.
Except, no one is going to be talking about it in those terms after Number 10 allowed the narrative to spin away from them completely. Instead of playing old school politics and massively downplaying the chances of Tory victory in the by-elections following Hartlepool, Boris Johnson and his team seemed to have decided they were invincible. In a democracy, this has a tendency to come back and bite you, hard and quickly.
The holding of Batley and Spen now appears to be a massive victory for Keir Starmer’s leadership. The chances of Labour winning yesterday had been built up as mission impossible, making it seem miraculous that they managed to triumph in the end. And while there were elements here out of the government’s control – for instance, just how much the left of Labour seemed to be banking on their own party losing the by-election – Downing Street allowed the narrative to set that the Conservatives were on course for an historic victory.
Boris Johnson was in Batley and Spen yesterday morning, having his picture taken with Ryan Stephenson, the losing Tory candidate. The social media posts that followed felt like a premature victory lap for the Conservatives, with Boris wanting to get his slice of the coming glory. This was all part of an unwise communications strategy pursued by Downing Street over the last few weeks. As we are reminded this morning, narrative is everything in politics. Spin is more important these days than ever before, when Twitter amplifies everything the instant it happens.
What the Tories should have done after Hartlepool was go on a massive expectation management exercise. They could have had Boris say things like, ‘Hartlepool was an amazing victory for us but those sorts of things don’t happen all that often. Governments usually lose by-elections. We will be hoping for the best in the coming contests but be prepared for what normally happens in these kinds of things.’ They should have been briefing those close to them in the media to play down expectations for victory in Chesham and Amersham and Batley and Spen as much as possible. Then, if the Conservatives lost those contests, well, governments almost always lose by-elections, particularly in seats where they haven’t won in over two decades. And if the Tories had managed to win either of the seats, then it’s an incredible victory for the governing party and Boris would soaked up all the good will.
The assumption that Number 10 seems to have made, which many in the media went along with as well, was that Galloway would take enough votes off Labour to let the Tories squeak through. Yet in retrospect, there were enough signs around that should have made the Conservatives much more cautious about Batley and Spen. The fact that Labour had the one truly local candidate wasn’t considered enough.
As we’ve witnessed over the past few weeks, by-elections are inherently unpredictable things. With such a small electorate at play, any factor can shift things significantly enough to make any victor plausible. One can only speculate on what decided Batley and Spen, but it’s very possible the ugly homophobia that circled around during the campaign, with Kim Leadbeater being chased and harassed, might have swung enough votes Labour’s way to get them over the line. Whatever it was, a series of factors added up to Labour keeping the seat, which was never as impossible a result as it was built up to be.
What damage all of this will do to Boris Johnson’s premiership remains to be seen. Yet this could be the turning point for Keir Starmer, depending on how he uses this unforeseen boost to his flagging fortunes. If Starmer is able to silence his critics on the left and rebuild himself in the public eye with this by-election victory, that alone will have damaged Boris.
The Tories have taken what could have been spun as a decent run of by-election results for them and turned it into what now feels like a personal loss for Boris Johnson. Yesterday’s result in Batley and Spen is a timely reminder that no one is invincible in politics. You assume that at your peril.