Opinion

What do the byelection results mean for the Conservatives? Our panel’s verdict

Victoria Honeyman: For Starmer, keeping Johnson in Downing Street is a gift

Victoria Honeyman

The Labour victory in the Wakefield byelection was not unexpected, but it certainly contributed to the one-two punch that the electorate delivered to Johnson’s government on 23 June. Wakefield had “lent” its vote to the Conservatives at the 2019 general election, but following the conviction of the local MP and recent government conduct, voters retracted their support.

Even before the allegations that led to his conviction on sexual assault charges in April 2022, Imran Ahmad Khan was accused by some of lacking diligence as a local MP. The Sue Gray report and accounts of parties in Downing Street, coupled with a lack of “levelling up” in the constituency, left many disappointed and disillusioned in the Conservatives nationally. Where was the change they had promised?

The election of Simon Lightwood is a good sign for Labour, representing a 12% swing. The Labour leadership will be able to point to Wakefield as a clear sign that their strategy to reinvent the party after the Corbyn years is working.

However, there needs to be a note of caution here. While Labour did win in Wakefield, the Conservatives clearly contributed to their loss. For Starmer, keeping Johnson in Downing Street would be a gift. If the Conservatives replace him, and they may if he becomes an electoral liability, Starmer may find his uphill battle even harder to win.

  • Dr Victoria Honeyman is an associate professor in British politics at the University of Leeds

David Gauke: Dowden’s resignation turns a difficult night into a crisis

David Gauke

Governments lose byelections, but these results are very grim for the Conservatives. Wakefield was expected to return to Labour and it did, with a substantial (but not spectacular) 12% swing from Tory to Labour.

Tiverton and Honiton, however, is a shocker. A 30% swing to the Liberal Democrats is huge and, added to similar defeats in Chesham and Amersham and North Shropshire, suggests that they are now a threat to many Conservative seats.

What turns a very difficult night into a political crisis for the prime minister is the resignation of the party chairman, Oliver Dowden. Dowden is an astute political operator and was an early supporter of Boris Johnson in 2019 because he thought Johnson offered the best route to a Conservative general election victory. It is obvious from Dowden’s resignation letter that he now thinks that Johnson’s resignation is the best route to winning the next general election.

When Dowden writes of it no longer being possible to carry on with “business as usual” and that “somebody must take responsibility”, it is not really his own position that he has in mind. The question now is whether other Ministers will follow.

  • David Gauke was Conservative MP for South West Herefordshire, 2005-19, and secretary of state for justice and lord chancellor, 2018-19

Lewis Clarke: There’s no such thing as a safe seat any more

Lewis Clarke

What a night for Tiverton and Honiton. A massive victory for the Lib Dems that I doubt even the most optimistic of supporters would have predicted.

It’s a swansong for the constituency, which will cease to be at the next election, and there will be a huge challenge to keep the new constituency area from turning blue in the next general election. Many Labour supporters and others have said they “held their noses” and voted Lib Dem to send a message to Boris Johnson, but for now, the Lib Dems will be celebrating whatever reasons led to their victory, as this is a major blow to the Conservatives. Many more MPs will be looking over their shoulders, as it indicates that there really is no such thing as a safe seat any more.

  • Lewis Clarke is a reporter for the Mid Devon Gazette and the North Devon Journal

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