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There are two routes the Conservative Party could have taken in response to their huge defeats in the Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire by-elections.
The first was to make it clear that they accept that the historic defeats – two of the biggest swings against a governing party ever recorded – were a demonstration of deep public dissatisfaction with the country’s direction and to reassure voters that they have a clear strategy to change course.
The second route, which was the one taken by the party’s Chairman Greg Hands on the airwaves on Friday morning, is to claim that the defeats were not actually that big, and were merely due to “legacy issues” with the departing MPs.
“I’m not denying the fact that Labour won those two seats but the Labour vote was actually down in Mid Bedfordshire and only up by about 800 votes in Tamworth,” Hands told the BBC.
“This wasn’t the case of electors moving over to Labour.”
At best this is deeply misleading and at worst it is outright delusional. While it is true to say that Labour’s total vote was down in Mid Bedfordshire compared to the last general election, so was every other party’s for the simple reason that it was a by-election and voter turnout is always lower in by-elections.
And when you look at actual voter share, it is clear that Labour’s vote was actually up massively from 2019. Indeed the swing to Labour in Tamworth was among the largest ever recorded, while in Mid Beds the party overcame the biggest by-election majority they have managed since the Second World War.
As Britain’s leading pollster John Curtice told the BBC, no UK Government has ever lost a seat as safe as Tamworth to the opposition ever. This is not just mid-term blues. These are historically large defeats which signal that the party is heading, not just for opposition, but for a potential wipeout at the next general election.
Yet rather than accept this reality, Hands went onto claim that the results were somehow an endorsement of the Prime Minister.
“The conversations I had in Mid Bedfordshire and Tamworth [show that] people were happy with the job that Rishi Sunak is doing as Prime Minister”, Hands told Sky News.
It’s unclear exactly who Hands was speaking to on the doorstep over the past few weeks, yet if results like these don’t signal to the Conservative Party that voters are unhappy with their Prime Minister and Government, then nothing ever will.
Of course many backbench Conservative MPs have long since woken up to what is happening and have announced their plan to stand down at the next election, and take up careers outside of politics.
Yet inside Downing Street,Sunak and his loyal advisers remain intent on a strategy that entirely ignores the reality of what is actually happening in the country.
So while voters again and again have made it clear that their biggest concerns are surging living costs and the state of the NHS, Sunak’s party have instead spent recent months obsessing over fringe issues like ’15 minute cities’, university free speech and gender neutral toilets.
Even when the Government does deal with the big issues, Sunak only seems to make matters worse. His decision to focus his entire party conference in Manchester on his decision to scrap the HS2 link to the city – thereby trashing his own Government’s central claims to be “levelling up” the country – will surely go down as one of the most baffling political decisions ever made.
In recent months Hands has become known for regularly sharing the famous note left by Labour’s Liam Byrne to his successor when the party last left office, in which he joked that there was “no money” left.
The way things are now going, Hands will be leaving a quite similar note to his successor as Conservative Party chairman, when he likely steps down after the next general election.
Except in this case, instead of apologising for the Conservative party’s lack of money, he will be apologising for their lack of votes and lack of MPs.