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Somewhere in the darkness of Ruislip, a dog was barking – presumably because it heard all the dog-whistles being blown on all sides in the Uxbridge & South Ruislip by-election. I doubt the dog was particularly enervated about the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ), however, despite the howling of politicians who made it the central issue in the constituency.
It was 2.33 am when the returning officer called the candidates for the Labour and Conservative parties over to discuss the result after a recount had slowed things down. He was obscured on TV coverage by the mighty helmet — titter titter — of Count Binface.
When the 17 candidates in the by-election finally lined up, the Liberal Democrat chatted amiably to Binface, perhaps aware that he had a similar chance of winning.
After the long march through the various totals, the winner — Conservative Steve Tuckwell — crowed that Labour’s London Mayor “Sadiq Khan [had] lost Labour this election”.
On TV, Labour MPs scurried around to explain the failure to take Uxbridge. “It was very close”, “ULEZ is a specific local policy”, “we’re only hours away from a major Labour swing”. But somewhere in the darkness, Keir Starmer must have been screaming like the dog.
In Uxbridge, the Lib Dems got fewer votes than the Greens and Laurence Fox’s Reform Party. Perhaps an electoral pact there with Binface was needed or maybe turning up in Uxbridge was a waste of time from the moment that Boris Johnson slumped out of Parliament like an anthropomorphic bin bag in a 1970s public information campaign about the dangers of fly-tipping.
Over in Somerset, the Lib Dem eyes were smiling, winning Somerton & Frome by more than 11,000 votes, while Labour barely crept over 1,000 and missed out on a podium place thanks to the Reform Party, which edged them out by 294 votes. The Conservative candidate received 10 times as many votes as Labour.
The Lib Dems in the West Country had been hungry for victory, while the Labour activists in Uxbridge were just hungry.
Claims bounced around social media that, while staffers ate Domino’s in another room, the volunteers who traipsed all over the constituency didn’t see a slice. An official from Labour’s local government organisation tweeted: “You’re there to canvas, not sit about and eat. The best committee rooms don’t have chairs in them.”
Seven hours later — after Labour had lost Uxbridge by 500 votes — the tweet was still there; a petty monument to the contempt Starmer’s Labour has sometimes seemed to show towards the ground troops it will desperately need come the next general election.
The most excited person in Britain for those hours in the dead of the night was Sir John Curtice, the eminent psephologist, who popped up on the BBC coverage looking, as ever, like the Creature Comforts tortoise.
He rifled around in his bag of election facts and found things to be happy and sad about for Sunak and Starmer. Every time he appeared, I wondered if anyone had given him some pizza. I’m sure he wouldn’t stand for being starved while he searches his enormous brain for stats.
I was craving pizza — possibly with an extra topping of Valium — by the time the third of the night’s by-elections (Selby & Ainsty in Yorkshire) declared at past 4am. Labour got its win with 25-year-old Keir Mather — a man who looks like he was grown in a pod at Labour HQ — taking the seat and delivering a speech that sounded as though it was generated by ChatGPT.
With Labour, Tories and the Lib Dems each securing a win, the sun (and The Sun) rose on a battle for control of the narrative. The outriders for each party were able to pull out stats and figures that suggested it was a ‘good night’ for them and a ‘bad night’ for their enemies — both inside and outside their parties.
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‘If the swing translates to the whole country’ said bad pundits and desperate politicians as if anyone who knows anything about these things imagines general elections are at all modelled on by-election results.
In the battle of expectation management, the Conservatives won. They’d pretended they believed they would be destroyed entirely.
In Selby & Ainsty, Labour got a meaty win with a major swing. But in Somerton, they came in behind the headbangers of the Reform Party, and fell short in Uxbridge where the record and ruin of the former PM should have allowed them to dominate.
The dog in Ruislip was sleeping as I stepped out into the cool morning air, but on every TV and radio channel, the dogs of Westminster were barking mad. In a corner shop, I asked a man if he voted. “For what?” he said. I felt a sudden urge to howl.