Disaster. Record-breakingly bad. Irrecoverable. Historic. Rishi Sunak was almost tempting fate in his visit to Israel when he invoked the spirit of Churchill in his pledge to support it in its “darkest hour”. For, less than 24 hours after his remark, it was Keir Starmer who could draw a parallel with the Second World War as the Tories now face an electoral “darkest hour” with no hint of a bright dawn.
In seizing Mid Bedfordshire, Labour overturned the biggest Conservative majority since 1945. Together with winning Tamworth, it means a Labour victory in the election is now a near certainty – with a real chance of a repeat of a Tony Blair-style 1997 landslide.
So, how did it come to this?
The prime minister’s bizarre “candidate for change” reset at the Tory conference; ditching the Net Zero targets; the core vote strategy; the meat tax; the post-Uxbridge “fight back”; the supposedly vote-winning HS2 announcement; British seas filled with sewage, sleaze and sexual assault allegations: all have turned to dust in semi-rural middle England. If the Tories poll at the next general election at the levels they’re at in the opinion polls now, it will be their worst showing since the Great Reform Act of 1832. Even the core vote is crumbling. It’s that bad.
Indeed, if yesterday’s twin by-election results were replicated at a general election, they’d leave about 50 Tories in the House of Commons and place Sir John Hayes in pole position to be next Tory leader.
That might not happen, but the swings – 23.9 percentage points away from Tories in Tamworth and 20.5 in Mid Bedfordshire – confirm the wider picture in the opinion polls, the trend across the last dozen or so comparable by-elections, and the encouraging showing for Labour and other opposition parties in the local elections earlier this year. No party has ever overturned as large a numerical majority of 23,664, the one Nadine Dorries won in Mid Beds last time round; and demolishing the 42.6 percentage majority the disgraced Chris Pincher took for granted in Tamworth is also of historic proportions.
Labour hasn’t won two by-elections off the Tories on one day since November 1962; a Labour government followed less than two years after. For a more recent benchmark, let’s just note the echo, psephologically and geographically, of Labour’s gain at the South Staffordshire (including Tamworth) by-election in 1996, secured under Tony Blair in opposition with a 22 per cent swing. A celebrated landslide followed…
The “narrow path” to victory that was still just about visible to Tory optimists has now been swept away. Indeed, to adapt a well-known political anthem, “things can only get worse” for the Tories, because results as dramatic as these create some momentum of their own. There is an increasing feeling, surely, that not only have the Tories outstayed their welcome, but they are making themselves even less popular by dragging out their remaining time in office. Like Mr Micawber, Sunak hopes that “something will turn up”. It won’t. Inflation is coming down and the premier may be able to get the small boats traffic down a bit. But the voters have stopped listening.
The Tories argue that there’s no great enthusiasm for Keir Starmer out there; that “on the doorsteps”, no one was crying out for Starmer to be prime minister. The implication is that Starmer’s dullness and tendency to “flip flop” will destroy Labour’s revival and support from the electorate. Fine. Their problem is that the mood to get the Tories out is running so strongly that Starmer’s bollard-like stolidity is of no consequence. He’s not popular, but Sunak’s ratings are even worse.
Just for a change, Labour is also getting lucky. All of a sudden the Conservatives and the SNP are simultaneously unpopular. The fears about the Tories benefiting from a divided anti-Tory vote also look misplaced.
Split opposition? Far from it. Geographically and socially, the Liberal Democrats are the Heineken of politics – they can reach sections of the electorate that Labour cannot reach. Thus, in Mid Bedfordshire, their story that they hoovered up votes from disaffected Tories who’d never vote Labour, and thus let Labour in looks perfectly plausible.
In the West Country and the “blue wall” in southern England, the Liberal Democrats can capture territory in areas Labour is weak in. The voters are obviously voting tactically to GTTO (get the Tories out) – see the collapse of the admittedly modest Lib Dem vote in Tamworth, similar to what happened in by-elections in Uxbridge, Rutherglen and Old Bexley. See also: Labour lost deposits in Somerton (and before that, Tiverton) that helped propel Lib Dems to stunning victories.
Reform UK, though a marginal force, will nibble away at any remaining Tory votes to the right of the strident Sunak-Braverman “offer”. The 5.4 per cent that their candidate scored in Tamworth, some 1,374 votes, actually exceeded the narrow Labour majority of 1,316. Much the same is true of Mid Beds too; something for Nigel Farage and Richard Tice to think about. Would they consider standing aside in certain Tory seats? Would the rump of Ukip do the same?
So again we might ask: how did it come to this? Books will be written, but the shorthand would be: Austerity; Brexit; Partygate/Sleaze, and Trussonomics/cost of living/the economy – the four horses of a Tory apocalypse. It’s Sunak’s bad luck to come in at the fag end of an exhausted administration, but he’s made his own errors too.
This was not a mid-term protest vote, a warning to the governing party from normally loyal voters. It is far too late for that. The voters, quite unusually in by-elections, turned directly to Labour rather than the Liberal Democrats or Reform UK, the heirs to UKIP, as they have sometimes in the past. It is not a protest, but an impatient vote for change.
As with the spirit of 1945, there is a yearning to rebuild, a mood Starmer tried to catch hold of in his conference speech about “a decade of renewal”. What happened in 1945? Well, the British turned to a man, Clement Attlee: understated, taciturn, businesslike, deeply uncharismatic and bald as a coot, a mouse of a man… who dispatched the colossus of Churchill.
There are sometimes great political breaks, often signified in electoral landslides that signal a sea change in politics, reflecting a radical shift in public attitudes. It happened to the Tories before, when they collapsed in 1906, in 1945 and in 1997. It feels very much like that cycle is about to come around again, with these now routine 20 percentage points swings in these by-elections (including against the SNP), and parallel leads in the opinion polls.
How bad could it be when the general election eventually comes round? Quite conceivably worse for the Tories than 1997, 1945 and 1906; and that would mean they are actually headed for their worst showing since the Great Reform Act of 1832 and the dawn of modern politics.
Indeed, the longer the Tories now seek to postpone the inevitable and squat in office the angrier the voters will become, and the more ready to not just stay home but turnout to vote Labour – and put the rather lacklustre personality of Starmer in charge of the country. Even now, the Tories don’t seem to comprehend just how badly they could be smashed next time. Sunak could even lose his own seat.
He’s a rational, highly intelligent man, and he must realise the game’s up, even if his colleagues haven’t. He should cut his losses; but prime ministers staring at defeat tend not to be in a hurry.