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Both Labour and the Lib Dems are campaigning hard in Nadine Dorries’ Mid Bedfordshire seat – despite the Johnson ultra-loyalist so far refusing to make good on her promise to step down “immediately” last week.
But the picture is slightly clearer in other by-election seats, Byline Times has learned, with parties tactically shifting resources to target areas.
There are currently at least four by-elections coming up – with the prospect of another in Scotland. COVID rule-breaking ex-SNP MP Margaret Ferrier looks likely to be ousted amid a recall petition in Rutherglen and Hamilton West.
Somerton and Frome (Somerset) will also see a by-election on 20 July, after David Warburton confessed to having taken cocaine and stood down. He had been suspended from the Conservative Party following an investigation into sexual harassment and drug use (he was cleared of harassment).
In North Yorkshire, Johnson ally Nigel Adams triggered a by-election in Selby and Ainsty, also due to be held on 20 July.
And in the outer London seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, Labour is gunning hard for a win. It comes after former Prime Minister Boris Johnson stood down when found to have lied to Parliament over lockdown parties in No. 10. That too will be on 20 July, triggering Conservative fears of a treble routing on the same day.
Speak to any party on the record, and they’ll say they’re gunning for all of these seats. But that’s not the full picture.
Mid Bedfordshire – Dorries’ Day
Labour’s campaigning efforts in Conservative stronghold Mid Beds have come as a surprise to many. But Byline Times has learned the heavy campaigning follows “promising” local polling for the party. “We’re taking Mid Bedfordshire more seriously than initially planned,” a party source said.
What makes things difficult for anti-Conservative voters is that the Liberal Democrats also see it as a target. A Lib Dem source said the party views Mid Beds as a “big opportunity” for a liberal challenge to the Conservatives. “Demographics play a crucial role in these decisions… The seat has a largely rural character.” Lib Dems tend to perform well in rural seats.
The Lib Dems came a distant third behind the Conservatives there in 2019 – but are well-known for pulling it out of the bag in dramatic by-elections.
The party source added: “We’ve already proven we have the credibility to win the seat. One local activist just spoke to a Labour member who admitted the Lib Dems are far more likely to win than the Labour Party.”
Despite calls from some quarters for alliances between progressive parties to oust the Conservatives, parties will rely instead on voters being smart. “They know who’s likely to win in their area, and vote accordingly”.
“The Lib Dems will continue to put up candidates with a focus on challenging the Conservatives,” the Lib Dem source said, adding that “voters want a real democratic choice rather than engineering a single anti-Tory candidate. It seems to have been successful in the recent local elections.”
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Speaking on a recent Compass podcast, former Lib Dem Leader Sir Vince Cable said: “It’s fairly clear from the media coverage over the last few days what is happening. I think [Leader] Ed Davey has been photographed twice doing stunts in Mid Bedfordshire and the other two haven’t been mentioned.
“There is a tacit assumption that we will concentrate all our efforts there. It’s eminently winnable from a Lib Dem point of view. The swing required is actually smaller than in North Shropshire, Chesham and Amersham and the Devon seat [Tiverton & Honiton].”
Lib Dem Leader Ed Davey recently said his priority is ousting the Conservatives. Does that mean the party will hand over Labour-leaning Uxbridge and South Ruislip for a clear Labour run?
No, according to a Lib Dem party source. “It’s not his job to get people to vote Labour. We’re focused on getting as many Lib Dem MPs elected as possible.”
Uxbridge and South Ruislip
Uxbridge is a key Labour target. The party came second with around 18,000 votes to Johnson’s 25,000 in 2019 – and Labour thinks it will snatch it this time.
The Lib Dems believe Labour will take it, too, despite putting up a candidate.
Conservative elections expert Lord Robert Heyward said local issues will be the dominant issue there. Labour London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) expansion to outer London this August comes at a tricky time.
“It will unwittingly become the main issue for that by-election, along with national issues, like interest rates, and the cost of living,” Lord Heyward added. “ULEZ and the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, both count against Labour there.”
There is a risk for the Tories though, that anti-Conservative voters will vote intelligently.
“Labour and the Lib Dems will spend a lot of time getting people who are anti-Tory to vote tactically,” the elections expert said. “It’s the classic Lib Dem bar chart and the Labour Party will do exactly the same.”
Somerton and Frome – Lib Dems Gun for Gold
The Lib Dems are prioritising winning Somerton and Frome, alongside Mid Beds whenever the by-election is called. The party’s message is likely to be highly tactical: ‘only the Lib Dems can defeat Tories here’.
“There’s no question that the method has been shown to work in by-elections in this Parliament. It has thrived,” Lord Heyward said.
A Labour source admitted the seat was not a Labour target seat: “It’s not a priority for us. It’s not a common topic among staffers and advisors. We’ll just leave it to the Lib Dems to win.”
Greens could also take a small chunk of the vote there, having performed well in Somerset in the recent local elections.
Despite working with the Lib Dems in other elections, there is little prospect of Greens standing aside in this or the other by-elections. The party is putting up a long-standing councillor in Somerton.
Selby and Ainsty – A Mountain to Climb
Labour is unsure of its prospects in Conservative-held Selby and Ainsty. “It’s too close to call and the response there seems to be more of a frustration with all politicians,” a party source said. “That might help us get over the line though.”
It is, however, a priority for Labour, alongside Uxbridge, with Mid Beds’ 24,000 vote Conservative majority making it a tough win.
While Selby also has a major 20,000 Conservative majority, “a lot has changed since the last general election,” the source added.
Will voters in those seats be confused about who they should vote for to stop the Conservatives? “Possibly. Many people we spoke to in Selby didn’t even realise there was going to be a by-election.”
The fact that there will be another general election in just a year could help opposition parties.
“Whoever wins might only be an MP for a year,” one party figure said. “So the message is ‘give Labour a chance, if we f**k it up this time, there’s always next year’. We’re throwing so many ground resources at it.”
One tactical voting group told Byline Times that it is waiting to see the lay of the land before making recommendations for voters to oust the Conservatives in the by-elections. But we can already see how things are shaping up in several of the constituencies.
An anti-Conservative tactical voter in Somerton and Frome is likely to lean heavily to the Lib Dems; while in Uxbridge, the choice is equally clear: it’s Labour or the Conservatives. Labour’s prioritisation of resources into Selby (alongside Uxbridge) means that the anti-Conservative vote will likely end up leaning that way – and Lib Dems may shift resources elsewhere accordingly.
Mid Bedfordshire is the messiest of the four, with both Labour and the Lib Dems currently both ramping up their efforts – despite Dorries not yet standing down.
Could there be a clean sweep for anti-Tory candidates? Depressingly for Nadine Dorries’ hopes of bruising Rishi Sunak, her seat is the most likely to remain in Conservative hands.
“I can’t see non-Tories picking up all four,” the Labour source said. “I can see us winning two. On a good night for the Tories, they’ll keep Selby by a hair’s breadth, and they’ll walk it in Mid Beds.”
For now, the opposition parties are not waiting around. 20 July could be deeply painful for Rishi Sunak’s leadership. If Nadine Dorries waits until the Conservative Party Conference to stand down and make it more awkward for the Prime Minister, Sunak could be going into a fourth by-election with very little political capital.
He will then likely spend as long as he can trying to rebuild it before having to call a general election. But if Labour has won several touchstone by-elections across the country – including by then, in Scotland – Keir Starmer will be feeling more bullish than ever about Labour’s chances of forming a government.
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