Brutal as they were, the twin byelection losses in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire did not necessarily change the plight faced by the Conservatives. What they did was shine so bright a beam on the situation that even the most self-deluding Tory MP can no longer pretend.
Just three months ago, Boris Johnson’s victory in the Uxbridge seat gave the Conservatives a boost of hope and Rishi Sunak stated that it did not guarantee the outcome of the next general election.
However, the outcome of Thursday’s election indicates that the shift of 6.7 percentage points from the Conservative party to Labour in Uxbridge was an exception, likely fueled by dissatisfaction in the outer London constituency regarding the implementation of the city’s ultra-low emission zone (Ulez).
Looking back, the Selby and Ainsty byelection on the same day was of greater significance. The Labour Party won the seat from the government by a 23.7-point shift, which closely mirrored the swing of 23.9 in Tamworth, another Conservative stronghold that voted to leave.
Mid Bedfordshire experienced a smaller change, with a difference of 20.5 points. However, Labour managed to win over the Conservative party, who previously held a majority of 24,664 votes. This was the largest margin in a postwar byelection.
On Friday, Conservative officials made a lot of noise insisting that the current government struggles are just the usual end-of-term slump, with loyal Tory supporters choosing to abstain rather than a surge of support for Keir Starmer’s party.
The second statement is somewhat accurate: The total number of votes for Labour in Tamworth only increased by less than 1,000 from 2019, and in Mid Bedfordshire it actually decreased, although both with significantly lower turnout.
There are two responses to consider. The first is that even if one were to argue that voters have not yet fully embraced Starmer, he could likely accept the results of Thursday’s election as it would greatly weaken the Tory party to about 130 MPs.
The second thing to consider is that, apart from the Labour party, all indications from the two byelections were unfavorable for Sunak.
For instance, following the Uxbridge victory, the prime minister interpreted the concerns about Ulez as a cue to shift towards more conservative stances on cultural disputes and move away from environmental initiatives. This resulted in the announcement of reduced green targets.
During the recent Conservative party conference in Manchester, government officials incorporated notions of conspiracy theories into their speeches, discussing concepts such as “15-minute cities” and falsely claiming that the Labour party had proposed a meat tax. They also used harsh language when discussing transgender issues.
This action was taken with the understanding that while it may alienate more progressive Conservative backers in areas known as the “blue wall” commuter belt, it could strengthen the party’s core and prevent a shift towards Reform UK, which was founded by Nigel Farage.
Based on Thursday’s results, Sunak is facing the worst possible scenario. Not only did a significant number of Tory voters choose not to vote, but in both seats, Reform UK received more votes than the eventual Labour majority.
In Tamworth, the political party Reform UK managed to keep their deposit by receiving 5.4% of the votes, placing them in third. The success of the Conservative party’s 2019 campaign was partly due to Farage’s decision not to run any candidates in areas where the Tories were already in power. This agreement centered around Brexit is not expected to happen again.
If you were a Conservative Member of Parliament and felt a sinking feeling in your stomach upon seeing the election results on Friday morning, the more you examine them, the more troubling they become.
Mid Bedfordshire in particular demonstrated the sheer vigour and scope of the Labour ground campaign, overcoming not just a massive Conservative majority in a home counties seat but also seeing off a determined effort from those byelection specialists, the Liberal Democrats.
For years, Tory constituency chiefs have privately warned that the party’s contingent of activists is ageing and shrinking. Those stay-at-home voters will not return by magic at a general election. Someone has to go out and persuade them.
There is another concerning sign for Sunak as the recent Mid Bedfordshire win suggests that voters are becoming more adept at strategically joining forces to overthrow the Conservative party.
It can be more challenging to accomplish this amidst the chaos of a national election, but the choice to unite behind Labour once it became evident that they had a higher chance of success than the Liberal Democrats demonstrated a potentially heightened level of determination.
There are, however, some conditions to consider. If Sunak decides to hold a general election at the last minute, it could be up to 14 months away. Many things can occur during this time. Starmer has not yet solidified his position. However, the current government continuously trails behind its competitors by 20 points in polls. This clearly reflects their performance.