Byelection results in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire represent new lows for a Conservative government that will soon be obliged to confront its mortality.
Even allowing for the capacity of byelections to produce startling results, the scale of collapse was jaw-dropping. The swing of 23.9% in Tamworth was the second largest Conservative-to-Labour shift we have seen, as a 19,634 majority was removed. Only 53 seats were safer for the Conservatives than Tamworth at the 2019 general election.
With a 20.5% swing from the Conservatives to Labour, Mid Bedfordshire was not far behind in the “wow” stakes. It lay among the Conservatives’ 100 safest seats, a constituency held by the Tories since 1931.
These reverses are part of a sustained pattern. Since June 2021, there have been four Conservative byelection losses to Labour on an average 19.8% swing, accompanied by four Conservative defeats to the Liberal Democrats, on even bigger swings, averaging 29.5%.
Combined, these eight Conservative byelection losses represent the second largest total ever seen in a period of less than two-and-a-half years.
Only the period that saw 13 byelection reverses for Harold Wilson’s Labour government between September 1967 and December 1969 offered a more concentrated session of defeats – and Labour duly lost the 1970 general election.
The circumstances triggering some recent byelections did not help the Conservatives. Tamworth was the seat vacated by Chris Pincher, the former Conservative MP who resigned over sexual misconduct and whose downfall also triggered the end of Boris Johnson’s term as prime minister.
Mid Bedfordshire was up for grabs after Nadine Dorries’s repeated threats to resign finally came to fruition amid increasing vocal complaints from her constituents that she was failing to represent them.
But these individual circumstance don’t explain it all. The fact is that Conservatives electoral problems are more general.
What about the Uxbridge and South Ruislip byelection, it might fairly be asked? The Conservatives indeed held that seat last July. Yet local circumstances pertained in a way they will not in a national contest.
In any case, even the Uxbridge win came at the cost of 6.7% swing to Labour. A repeat of that at the national level would probably see the Conservatives, friendless beyond their own ranks at Westminster, removed from government.
When is a byelection not ‘just a byelection’?
But these are merely byelections, it might be contended. Yes, but it is beginning to feel like 1996 again, the year before Labour last swept to power.
That year, the old South East Staffordshire constituency (which became Tamworth in 1997) saw a very similar Conservative to Labour swing (22%). We knew what was coming in the general election.
The Conservatives could until recently hold onto the view that they were still very much in the game. Local election leads for Labour (five points in 2022, nine in 2023) were far less than those in opinion polls. But those big leads have now materialised in byelections.
Equally as ominously, Keir Starmer’s lead over Rishi Sunak as preferred prime minister has expanded. Remember that the less preferred candidate has not prevailed since Margaret Thatcher beat Jim Callaghan way back in 1979.
Conservative hopes for a conference bounce have not materialised. When your biggest conference announcement is what you are cancelling – in this case HS2 – it’s not a great look. Stopping trains and boats will not win elections.
It is not true that the mood at the Conservatives’ gathering in Manchester was gloomy. It was far livelier than might have been anticipated given the polling gloom – but in a “the band played on” type of way.
Labour’s conference in Liverpool was, perhaps unsurprisingly, buoyant. The party stopped issuing passes at 18,500, with capacity reached and was turning away would-be exhibitors. A palpable sense of expectation was evident, unusual in a party which has managed to lose seven of the last ten general elections.
The Liberal Democrats’ conference in Bournemouth focused on converting their 91 second places in 2019 into victories. Realisation of such ambitions will overwhelmingly hit the Conservatives given 80 of those second places lie in Tory seats.
Yet perhaps the most important domestic political event during conference season took place away from the throbbing halls. Labour’s byelection capture from the Scottish National Party of Rutherglen and Hamilton West offered Keir Starmer a much clearer route to an overall majority via Scottish gains than had hitherto been the case in the years of nationalist impregnability.
Although pencilled in for next September in Liverpool, Labour might not be needing another conference. October 10 2024 looks the likeliest election date for a variety of reasons, in which case the campaign will be well underway.
Much can happen in the meantime of course but Labour is relentlessly closing off opportunities for Conservative attacks. Almost all the evidence suggests the electorate is, to adjust a recent conference slogan, likely to take a long-term decision for a rather different future.