Opinion

By this reckoning, the Conservatives will have very few truly safe seats next election

Recent by-election results were catastrophic both for Rishi Sunak personally and for the Conservative Party as a whole, writes James Ball.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and Keir Mather, the new Labour MP for Selby at Selby Community Centre, during a visit ahead of the Selby by-election. Image: PA Images/Alamy

Three by-elections in one night, each one with a different winner – the “something for everyone” takes almost write themselves and, by the time this is published, many of them will already be out in the wild.

The reality is, whatever your political persuasion, Thursday’s results were catastrophic both for Rishi Sunak personally and for the Conservative Party as a whole. The fact of having three by-elections in government-held seats, all at once, less then a year into a new leader’s tenure itself tells you things are far from normal.

Adding in to that the fact all three were in seats that should be extremely safe for the Conservatives – two had majorities of 20,000 at the last election, and the other was a comfortable majority and had been formerly held by the party’s leader – and losing even one seat would have been a very bad sign.

Let’s get the ostensible ‘good’ news for the Conservatives out of the way: the party held on to Uxbridge and South Ruislip. They did this with a majority of just 495 votes, down from around 7,500, and this came in an election during the holidays, when the thousands of Brunel students usually living in the constituency were away.

The campaign was turned into a referendum on the ULEZ (a charge on the oldest, worst-emitting cars, to reduce air pollution), to which Labour had no answer. So off-guard was the Conservative Party – and so clueless their candidate – that even after victory the winner was unable to claim the win held any meaning other than a rejection of Khan and ULEZ.

The two losses both came from swings of more than 20,000, and leave the Conservatives vulnerable in all sorts of seats they need to be safe. In a general election, parties rely on bussing in MPs, councillors and activists from safe seats into marginal ones – to defend vulnerable seats and try to pick up new ones.

The Conservatives will have very few truly safe seats next election. Even if the Liberal Democrats generally struggle to make gains as dramatic as their by-election wins at general election, nervous MPs tend to stay at home and campaign in their own seats.

The Selby and Ainsty seat lost to Labour will leave northern Conservatives immensely nervous – this was not a recent “red wall” pickup. It is a largely rural, traditionally Conservative area, very similar to Rishi Sunak’s own constituency.

If the Tory endless “war on woke” isn’t helping them hold seats like this, it is hard to see anywhere that it will do the trick.

So it wasn’t a “good news, bad news” night, but while the Conservative Party meltdown is the core story, there will be question marks for other leaders too. The fringe parties really lost out – Laurence Fox’s Reform UK didn’t break 800 votes in Uxbridge, and Piers Corbyn’s fringe conspiracy movement didn’t get 200.

The Liberal Democrats will be happy to have picked up their fourth by-election win of the parliamentary term, but it hasn’t changed their narrative – they’re good at by-elections and rarely even thought of the rest of the time.

Keir Starmer’s critics will seize on the failure to win Uxbridge – despite throwing everything at it – as a sign he needs to radically change course, while his supporters will point to Selby as to why he shouldn’t, meaning the internecine sniping will continue.

Both sides of the divide should probably try to look at both results in the round: Labour would be mad to radically shift its strategy on these results, but it should look at why it could never find a counter-narrative to a single-issue campaign in Uxbridge.

But it’s Sunak who’s in the least enviable position – he has at least one more pending by-election in what should be a safe seat, thanks to Nadine Dorries, and her decision to delay her departure means it’s still hanging over him.

Sunak has at most 18 months until he has to hold an election, a fractious and divided parliamentary party, an electorate that no longer likes him more than his party, and five pledges that look increasingly impossible to deliver. Heavy is the head.

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