Katy Balls

What went wrong for the Tories in Batley and Spen?

What went wrong for the Tories in Batley and Spen?
Labour candidate Kim Leadbeater at a polling station in Batley and Spen. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
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What went wrong for the Tories in Batley and Spen? That’s the question Conservative MPs are asking after the party failed to win the seat from Labour in yesterday’s by-election. In a way, it’s a strange question to ask. The seat has been Labour since 1997 and wasn’t seen as a key target by Conservative Campaign Headquarters ahead of the 2019 election. It isn’t an obvious potential Tory gain. Yet after George Galloway decided to stand, the general consensus among pollsters, pundits and Conservative MPs was that the Tory party was on course to win it. 

As a result, Labour clinging on to the seat by just 323 votes is being heralded as a huge triumph for Keir Starmer while government ministers are being asked on the airwaves why they fell short. Party chairman Amanda Milling told Sky News that former health secretary Matt Hancock’s breach of Covid rules was ‘something that came up on the doorstep’. Tory MPs were already grumpy about the fact that the Prime Minister initially stuck by Hancock. He only resigned after numerous Tory MPs made their discomfort over the situation known to the whips.

Yet Tory MPs who campaigned in Batley and Spen in recent days are sceptical that the Hancock row was a major factor in the result. They point to two other issues. The first is Labour’s choice of candidate, Kim Leadbeater. By picking the sister of the late MP for the constituency, Jo Cox, the party had a candidate with strong ties to the area – she grew up there – who could not be accused of being a carpetbagger. It meant the Tories struggled to rival Labour’s local campaign. One MP says what the Conservative campaign was missing was a promise of investment in the area in the form of a new road or more public services. Faced with ugly tactics, Leadbeater also won over voters by staying focussed rather than being drawn into rows. 

The second issue doing the rounds among Tory MPs is the party machinery and there is growing frustration with CCHQ. ‘There’s a reason Amanda might want to blame Matt [Hancock],’ says one MP who has been out campaigning in recent weeks. The get-out-the-vote campaign on Thursday is being blamed, along with the algorithm the party uses to choose which doors to knock on. Milling this morning made the reasonable point that governing parties don’t tend – in normal times – to win by-elections. But the fact that Tory MPs were tripping over themselves to reference Batley and Spen at Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions shows that the party believed they would. It’s for this reason that a post-mortem is needed. 

Written byKaty Balls

Katy Balls is The Spectator's deputy political editor.

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