The voters of Tiverton and Honiton didn’t get the memo. Nor, it seems, did the good people of Wakefield. They were meant to have moved on, to have put Partygate behind them, to have realised that Boris Johnson got the big calls right and now enjoys the full confidence of his colleagues, to have “priced in” his law-breaking and lying, to be grateful that he took full responsibility for the appalling behaviour revealed by Sue Gray because he had, after all, uttered the words “I take full responsibility.”
Instead voters in two constituencies at opposite ends of England have declared that they don’t believe a word of that rubbish, rejecting the governing party in a double byelection defeat more decisive than even the gloomiest Conservative pessimist could have predicted. In Wakefield, Labour retook a “red wall” seat on a 12.7% swing that, replicated across the country, would see them back in government with a Commons majority. In Tiverton, the Lib Dems outdid even their own spectacular record-breaker in North Shropshire six months ago, overturning a majority of 24,000 with a swing of 30%.
In the early hours, the Conservative party chairman Oliver Dowden resigned, saying that somebody “must take responsibility”. But everyone knows that voters in Yorkshire and Devon were not registering a protest vote against Oliver Dowden, who most could not identify in a line-up. Their fury is directed at Johnson, who has confirmed his status as the reverse Heineken, repelling the parts every other Tory leader used to reach. In one form or another, Tiverton had been Conservative for a century; it took Johnson to break that bond. Tories like to think, on sketchy evidence, it took Johnson’s unique magic to build the red wall out of places such as Wakefield in 2019; what’s not in doubt is that it is Johnson who is destroying it now.
Conservative MPs will be anxious this weekend, fearful for the one thing they truly care about: their own seats. If even Tiverton is not safe, they will be thinking, what about them? The 2019ers in the north of England and Midlands will be asking themselves if what Johnson the electoral magician once giveth, Johnson the electoral liability now taketh away. They will be terrified especially by the emergence of a de facto progressive alliance, one that is all the more threatening for being unofficial and apparently organic: those who make up this country’s overwhelming anti-Conservative majority are sorting themselves efficiently, deploying their own votes in whatever way ensures a Tory defeat. For all the grumbles about Keir Starmer’s dullness, the fact that the Labour leader is inoffensive to Lib Dems – and unscary even to onetime Tory voters – is the essential prerequisite for tactical voting and, as these results demonstrate, a precious asset.
Of course, those Tory nailbiters will comfort themselves with talk of “very challenging circumstances” in both seats, vacated in one case by a man who said that when he was watching porn in the Commons chamber he only meant to be looking at tractors and, in the other, by a man jailed for sexually assaulting a teenage boy. They will try to say that byelections can deliver freak results unrepeated in a general election, that these are no more than midterm blues.
But that is beginning to look like delusion. For the reality is becoming ever clearer: namely, that this cruel and useless government is running out of road.
The cruelty and the uselessness are related, the former driven in part by the latter. The uselessness is on display wherever you look. If it’s not a railway network immobilised by an industrial dispute the government could not solve – not least because it didn’t try – it’s cancellations, queues and backlogs at airports, A&E departments and magistrates courts. Looming over it all is an economic picture as bleak as any seen in decades. This week inflation hit a 40-year high of 9.1%, while GDP is projected to slump to 0% growth in 2023, with Britain behind every developed economy in the world bar Russia.
Runaway inflation and non-existent growth spells direct pain for millions of people, including those workers now striking or considering doing so, because even an offered pay rise of, say, 7% is effectively a pay cut: it asks people to work for less when every bill coming through the door demands more. It means many Britons, even those in work, are contemplating an autumn where they will have to choose whether to starve or shiver.
These are not circumstances in which a party in government for 12 years can petition the voters for a fifth term, and the Conservatives know it. The most basic question an electorate can be asked is the one that took Ronald Reagan to the White House in 1980: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” If the answer to that inquiry is a resounding and near-unanimous “no”, you better have a pretty compelling case for why you deserve to be given four or five more years in charge.
The Tories have no such case. Instead, they have a leader next to no one trusts who can offer nothing but culture war distraction, polarisation and hate. The Conservatives can’t end the rail dispute, so they and their Fleet Street allies seek to pretend it’s the late 1970s and blame Labour – rather forgetting that it’s they who are in government. They can’t ease the cost of living, so they spend £120m on an attempt to deport 500 refugees to Rwanda then move to repeal the Human Rights Act – so they can return to the old-time religion of attacking asylum seekers, lawyers and “European judges”. Meanwhile, desperate to lure businesses to a Britain they have rendered unattractive through the disaster of Brexit, they propose lifting the cap on bankers’ bonuses, only dropping the idea when they realise just how bad that looks when everyone else is struggling to make ends meet.
Optics, positioning and dividing lines: that’s all they’ve got. With a compliant media at your side, that can be fine for a while – but not when times are this tough and with a leader so widely and deeply reviled. Of course, byelection results can give false cheer to opposition parties; governments can recover. But sometimes they reveal just how truly rotten things have become.