In what was a big night for UK politics, Rishi Sunak narrowly avoided the ignominy of becoming the first Prime Minister in 55 years to suffer three by-election defeats on the same night, by scraping home in Uxbridge.
Two of the by-elections in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, Selby and Ainsty, and Somerton and Frome, came about due to the internal Tory split over the Commons Privileges Committee’s report into Boris Johnson. With just one year to go until the next General Election, the question was whether the Labour Party are on course for victory in 2024, or whether the current polls are underestimating the potential for a Tory fightback.
What do these results tell us?
On the face of it, the results provide the Government with some blue sky in a very cloudy outlook. A big part of this was a reverse of the Tory communications approach from the local elections – setting expectations for a wipeout and then being the comeback kids for anything that went their way.
This means that despite huge swings towards Labour and the Liberal Democrats in the traditionally safe Tory seats of Selby and Ainsty and Somerton and Frome, the Government will be buoyed by their surprising win in the more marginal seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip.
The vote swing
The results in Selby and Ainsty, and Somerton and Frome will no doubt be of concern to Sunak and the Conservatives, where large majorities were overturned.
In Selby and Ainsty, the Labour Party overcame a 20,000 Conservative majority with a 24-point swing to win what was one of the safest Conservative seats in the country, a swing which, if repeated on a national scale, would spell wipeout territory for the Tories.
Similarly, in Somerton and Frome, we saw yet another huge by-election victory for the Liberal Democrats, overturning a 19,000 majority on a 29-point swing to take the seat from the Conservatives, giving them real hope that they can return as a force in the South West.
A glimmer of hope for the Conservatives?
Despite these struggles, the good news for the Government was in Uxbridge and South Ruislip. Perceived as the most vulnerable of the three seats being contested, the local backlash against the expansion of Sadiq Khan’s ULEZ policy helped the Tories to narrowly hold the seat – a successful exercise in finding a local issue on which you are on the ‘right side’ and making it the centre of your campaign – a tactic many a LibDem would be proud of. That Boris Johnson’s profile did not feature will also be of real comfort for the Prime Minister.
What do the results mean?
The results in Selby and Ainsty, and Somerton and Frome are in line with recent opinion polls which indicate that Labour are on course for victory at the next General Election and that the Lib Dems are making solid progress throughout their former strongholds in the South-West of England.
The Tories will be concerned about the levels of tactical voting seen in the results. This is borne out in the reduced vote share for those candidates that came in third place last night, a good indicator that voters are preferencing the candidates that have the best chance of defeating the Conservatives.
On the other hand, the result in Uxbridge and South Ruislip does show the potential for a narrow path to victory for the Tories in 2024 if they can find issues that resonate locally and highlight Labour’s record where they already hold power in local government.
The result in Uxbridge and South Ruislip also poses questions for the Labour Party, who will be disappointed about their inability to win a by-election in a marginal seat just one year away from a General Election. Whilst local concerns no doubt played a role, that a single wedge issue was able to undermine Labour’s messaging so much suggests that support for the party is soft and will lend credence to the arguments that the party needs to set out more reasons as to why people should vote for them, rather than just vote against the Conservatives.