Katy Balls

What counts as a bad result for Boris in the by-elections?

What counts as a bad result for Boris in the by-elections?
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The polls are open for the Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton by-elections. The results are due in the early hours of Friday – with the Tories at risk of losing both of them. The votes have long been seen as a crunch point for Boris Johnson's premiership – even though the fact that there was a confidence vote just weeks ago means that it is unlikely to lead to another. To hold another vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister, MPs would have to change the rules and no-one expects them to try to do this so soon after the last one.

Instead, the results have the potential to solidify concerns among MPs over the direction of Johnson's government and his ability to lead them into the next election. The fact that the Tories' main opponent in Wakefield is Labour and in Tiverton and Honiton is Liberal Democrats means that a double loss would fuel fears of the party being squeezed on both sides and show how tactical voting at the next election could be disastrous for the Conservatives.

So, what counts as a good or bad result for the Tory party? Expectations are so low that if they manage to hold on to one of the two seats, expect it to be heralded a triumph – proving, Johnson supporters would say, the naysayers wrong. On paper, the Tories ought to have a better chance of holding on to Tiverton and Honiton given the majority is 24,239 – the by-election was triggered when Neil Parish resigned after admitting he watched porn on his phone in the Commons. Tories canvassing in the constituency over recent days believe the mood has improved slightly over the past few weeks in Johnson's favour – but are still braced for a tricky result. There is a hope in Tory high command that they could cling onto the seat. Given that there are only 40 Tory seats that have larger majorities than Tiverton and Honiton, even scraping by wouldn't be that reassuring. A loss will fuel fears of Tory voters abandoning the party in the south. 

When it comes to Wakefield, the Tories are defending a 3,358 Tory majority, after former Conservative MP Imran Ahmad Khan was jailed for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy in 2008. Many Tory MPs have already written this seat off. Given Johnson's message to Tory MPs is that he is the person best placed to hold onto the Red Wall, aides in Downing Street will be hoping there are signs that Johnson is still holding a chunk of the vote among those who voted Tory there for the first time in 2019.

It's hard to read too much from a by-election result. They often become the subject of protest votes and see despondent voters staying at home rather than coming out. It's why the vote swing will be key – does it suggest Tory voters are moving in their masses to Labour or the Liberal Democrats. Ministers and Downing Street aides are keen to stress that mid-term blues are not uncommon and that many voted by post some time ago and therefore the results may not be an accurate representation of how voters feel today. But if the Tories lose Tiverton and Honiton it will be the largest majority that's ever been overturned in a by-election (based on vote numbers). That is a result even Johnson would struggle to spin his way out of.

Written byKaty Balls

Katy Balls is The Spectator's deputy political editor.

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