The optics this morning could not look any worse for the Conservative party. They have been defeated by Labour in a red wall constituency – demonstrating how vulnerable they are to losing seats newly won in 2019. And they have suffered a crushing defeat against the Lib Dems in a formerly (very) safe seat. The Tories appear to be in danger of leaking seats in several different directions at the next general election. There are clearly lessons to be learned and things the party can do to turn this around. The problem is the Tories don’t have any solutions at the moment.
There are some who are saying that these two by-election losses look worse than they actually are. That Labour should be doing better than what we witnessed in Wakefield and that the result there was mostly due to Conservative voters staying at home, as opposed to some newfound love for the Labour party amongst the denizens of West Yorkshire. Even if this analysis was true – and I don’t think it is – these same voters are just as free to stay at home at a general election as during a by-election. The lazy assumption that ‘they’ll all come back when it counts’ is just that. As 1997 showed – and closer to home, 2017 as well – Tory voters sitting an election out can hurt the party enough to cause serious electoral damage.
Then there is the argument that this was nothing more than tactical voting at play and so yesterday can be spun as a positive for the Conservatives as it sets up the ‘Labour and Lib Dems are trying to stitch up democracy’ argument nicely. This doesn’t wash because if anything, the two by-election results indicate exactly how effective tactical voting can be, when done right and (more importantly) the conditions suit it.
Neither Starmer nor Davey went on about tactical voting in the run-up to the by-elections – in fact, they massively played the idea down as much as possible. Anti-Tory tactical voting doesn’t work when campaigning groups design fancy websites that tell you how to tactically vote in your area, or when opposition leaders bang on about it – it works when Labour have a leader people aren’t scared of and there is widespread dissatisfaction with the Conservative party. When those conditions align, people figure out for themselves how to tactically vote, and as yesterday illustrated, it can be devastatingly effective when it is led by the electorate.
Meanwhile, a lot of Remainers on social media are keen to state that yesterday’s results were a revolt against Brexit. This is clearly false. However, they do show how much the country has moved on from the debate around leaving the EU already. If the Tories think they can simply campaign at the next general election on a platform of ‘We got Brexit done and watch out, Labour want to undo it’, they should look at Wakefield and Tiverton and think again. Both constituencies up for grabs on Thursday were heavily Leave voting in 2016, and yet one was happy to return to Labour, the other to give an outright majority to the ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ crew. Most people don’t want to hear about Brexit any longer – and they particularly don’t want to hear about it from the party that promised at the last general election to get it all ‘done’.
So, while yesterday was not a revolt against Brexit, it was certainly a demonstration that ‘get Brexit done’ is not going to work a second time round for the Tories. It could even backfire on them horribly – why are they going on about Brexit again when we voted for them to remove it from our lives last time round?
In the end, what yesterday’s results revealed more than anything else is that people have definitively turned against Boris Johnson’s leadership and they are unlikely to return. It looks like many Conservative voters are happy to either stay at home, or even vote Lib Dem or Labour in order to be rid of the Prime Minister. They don’t fear Starmer as they did Corbyn.
The good news for the Tories is that if they changed leader, they could probably fix this problem – both main opposition parties in England have entirely honed their pitches to be anti-Johnson and are mostly getting good results based on anti-Johnson feeling, as opposed to any real warmth towards their own leaders or platforms. If faced with a new Conservative prime minister with an entirely different persona and agenda, say Ben Wallace or Jeremy Hunt, Tory fortunes could just about be turned around.
The bad news is that it doesn’t look like the Conservative parliamentary party ultimately has the guts to do what needs to be done. Also, the time to do this and still win the next election is slipping away, at least if what West Yorkshire and Devon are telling us is broadly correct. And there is no reason to doubt these results.