The Conservative Party is going to lose the next general election. That’s the only reasonable reading of last night’s three by-election results.
In Selby and Ainsty, Labour overturned the largest Conservative majority they have ever managed in their history, while in the previously safe southern ‘blue wall’ seat of Somerton and Frome, the Lib Dems won a similarly huge victory in order to take the seat.
If replicated across the rest of the country, swings on these scales would result in Rishi Sunak’s party being reduced to a tiny fraction of its current size.
This will terrify Conservative MPs, growing numbers of whom have already declared their intentions to retire at the next general election.
It wasn’t a complete wipeout for Sunak’s party, with the Conservatives narrowly hanging onto Boris Johnson’s old seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, due to widespread local public anger over the extension of the Ultra Low Emission Charge being brought in by London mayor Sadiq Khan.
However, if the Uxbridge result is a crumb of comfort for Sunak this morning, then it will be a false comfort. The particular circumstances of this West London seat, where Labour is effectively already in Government and already taking unpopular decisions, will not be replicated at any scale in a general election. And while the Conservatives did manage to hold onto the seat, they did so by fewer than 500 votes and at the expense of Labour winning their best ever result in the area.
Indeed in some ways, the Conservatives’ narrow win in Uxbridge is the worst of all worlds for the party. Rather than face up to the collapse of their support in two previously safe Conservative seats, they instead risk convincing themselves that it will be possible to cling onto power through simply running purely negative anti-Labour campaigns elsewhere.
They are likely to be disappointed. Far from being a signpost to the battle to come, the Uxbridge result will merely further convince Keir Starmer that his ultra-cautious, safety-first approach of avoiding any big dividing lines with the Conservative party, while avoiding any big spending commitments that can be turned into a ‘tax bombshell’ attack by Sunak, is the right one.
As recent polling commissioned by Byline Times has shown, there is a very good argument for Labour to be much bolder in its approach to policy at the next election, but this is not an argument likely to get much of a hearing in Starmer’s Norman Shaw South office after last night’s results.
In truth, in all three by-elections the overwhelming factor was the cost of living . Even in Uxbridge, where voters in the car-dominated area of outer London balked at the prospect of shelling out thousands of pounds for new ULEZ-compliant vehicles, it was the single issue of the pounds in people’s pockets that ultimately decided the result. It is also why Labour will still be favourites to take the seat at the general election next year.
It is for this reason that Sunak is now reportedly resolved to hanging on until almost the last possible moment before holding a general election. Without a significant turnaround of the economy over the next year the Conservatives’ hopes of staying in office look almost non-existent.
Yet even a better than expected economic recovery is unlikely to be enough for Sunak and his party. In both Selby and Somerton, opposition canvassers reported that previous Conservative voters were struggling to think of a reason to turn out.
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As one senior Lib Dem figure who trod the streets in Somerton told Byline Times, “It is striking how those still voting Conservative have little reason to give for doing so other than habit and tradition.”
“There aren’t any current Conservative messages that work usefully for them.”
Since entering Downing Street, Sunak has made meeting his “five priorities” the test for how his premiership should be judged.
As the pollster Luke Tryll told Byline recently, these priorities – living costs, economic growth, the NHS, immigration and debt – are largely the right ones for most voters. The problem is that on all five of them Sunak is falling short.
It is this basic failure, after 13 years of similarly broken promises, that was behind the two colossal defeats for Sunak’s party in Selby and Somerton last night.
Unless Sunak can find a way to fundamentally change that picture then the Conservatives will be on course for a similarly catastrophic result across the rest of the country next year.