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Simon Tiernan
| 21ST JUL 2023

Zeno Thinks: By-election extravaganza – two outta three ain’t great?

In today’s post by-election blog, Times Radio’s John Pienaar and Zeno’s Simon Tiernan try to read the political runes in the run up to the general election.

By-election night- What was all that about?
By John Pienaar, Times Radio

The results gave one seat apiece to each of the main parties and each one told a different story – although together they add up to good reason for Rishi Sunak’s government to worry about the state of public opinion and his party's chances in the next general election, due before January 2025, but generally expected around the Autumn of next year.

Uxbridge went to the polls because Boris Johnson resigned before he could be forced to face a recall petition (and a likely by-election after being censured by the Commons for misleading MPs over Partygate). The Tories held the seat by a bare 500 votes, and it was universally acknowledged they scraped through because of local anger at the extension of the ULEZ auto emission charges being extended to the outer-London borough. Even so, the 7% swing to Labour was enough to point towards Labour becoming the largest party in a hung parliament, which would put Kier Starmer in Downing Street, since no other party will cooperate with the Tories.

Somerton and Frome went to the polls because the sitting MP was driven to resign after a sex and drugs scandal. The Liberal Democrats won with a huge swing, reminiscent of elections leading up to Tony Blair’s victory in 1997, when voters beat the Conservatives in one safe Tory seat after the other. There was a powerful sense of “time for a change”, and no by-election seemed safe for the Tories. The Lib Dems hope Somerton gives yet more evidence of their chances of breaking through the so-called “blue wall” in the South and West at election time.

Selby is maybe the clearest indication of the current threat to Sunak’s government. In a straight Tory-Labour fight, in a rural Conservative, North-Yorkshire heartland seat, Labour won its biggest by-election victory in history. Voters there punished the Tories after the resignation of sitting Tory MP Nigel Adams, when he failed to land the peerage Boris Johnson had promised him. But the sheer extent of the victory pointed to wider and deeper disillusionment with the Tories.

In all, these results suggest the Conservatives are in trouble – every bit as deep as suggested by national polls currently placing Labour 20 points or so in the lead. To win, Labour would need to surpass Tony Blair’s swing in the 1997 Labour landslide.

The next election is not a done deal but Team- Starmer can reasonably be optimistic. The Tory path to victory looks vanishingly narrow.  A hung parliament cannot be ruled out, but the current trends – including the SNP’s troubles in Scotland – suggest a change of government, and possibly a sizeable Labour majority in the Commons, is now very much on the cards.


Four hundred and ninety five.
By Simon Tiernan, Zeno London

In the end it came down to that tiny number of votes. This sliver of the population was all that separated Rishi Sunak from becoming the first prime minister to lose three by-election seats on the same day in over half a century.

To put that into context for you, in that year (1968), the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Rising, while both Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated in the USA. Over here, Enoch Powell made his infamous Rivers of Blood speech and Harold Wilson was scrabbling to keep his beleaguered Labour Government in power.

Not an auspicious precedent for any politician to consider, but Sunak emerged upbeat thanks to 495 precious votes.

Losing all three would have been a real punch in the gut for the PM and seriously dented his party’s chances ahead of next year’s general election… or would it? By-elections are a staple of British politics (we’ve already had 16 since 2021) and, almost without fail, generate weeks of headlines, speculation, and a heady buzz around Westminster.

But the jury remains very much out on whether by-elections, including the triple header just passed, merit the hype. Does the loss of two Conservative seats indicate a changing of the guard after thirteen years of Tory Government? Or is this just another predictable case of an incumbent receiving the full brunt of voter anger that will have subsided by next year?

Torrid times

As with almost every by-election, the odds of success here were stacked against the government. Over the past few weeks, No.10 have made it their mission to play down expectations of even a single win today. It is a playbook the Conservatives successfully rolled out before the local elections earlier this year, in which an unrealistic benchmark of 1,000 Tory losses was set and subsequently sailed past. Given the turbulent past few years of Tory rule, it comes as little surprise they have mastered the art of damage limitation.

But a catalogue of Conservative MPs continue to indicate they will be standing down at the next election, with highly respected Defence Secretary Ben Wallace the latest to jump ship. In fact, Wallace will step down from the cabinet even sooner, at the next reshuffle. Rumours have been swirling that Sunak would pull the trigger on an immediate cabinet reshuffle if he suffered three losses, but it looks like the first week of September is now the most likely time for change. This will be Sunak’s last attempt to build a team around him ready to fight an election and extend Conservative power for yet another term.

Not all cheer for Keir

Sir Keir Starmer will be buoyed by an extra seat in the house and his commanding lead in the polls very much intact. Yet more damaging Tory losses feed into his gameplan of sitting back and letting chaos unfold as he maintains his image of a serious statesman. Yet all is not well in the Kingdom of Labour as warring internal factions continue to create distractions.

The left of the party have not taken kindly to Sir Keir’s acceptance of the “fiscal conservative” tag and he has clashed with Ed Miliband on green issues, reportedly stating he “hates tree huggers”. That said, the Conservatives continue to brand Labour as the political wing of Just Stop Oil, with Grant Shapps this week demanding he pays for the damage the protest group’s attacks on a Government building have caused.

He seemingly can’t catch a break. But that’s the problem with fence-sitting: without a clear set of beliefs and policies (he’s still making us wait for the manifesto), you will keep suffering blows from both sides.

A word of advice for brands and businesses

Engage, engage, engage. The 2024 General Election is now just a matter of months away, with the opportunity for meaningful brand engagement ever narrowing. 

This morning's results demonstrate the need for broad engagement, with Conservative sources arguing they still have a "narrow path to victory", Labour without question in the fight and the Lib Dems becoming credible kingmakers for a future "progressive alliance".

 All the main political parties are eager to work with business to cooperate on the solutions needed to support the UK out of its current economic malaise. The key will be to engage openly with all, with all results still on the table.