It is sometimes said that the Conservative party is capable of only two emotions: complacency and panic. At the moment, it exists in both conditions simultaneously. Boris Johnson and his shrivelling band of acolytes responded to a double-whammy of byelection defeats with complacent shrugs. Speaking to journalists yesterday, he claimed to be “actively thinking about the third term”. Whatever he’s been inhaling, it’s not reality. The panic is among the many Tory MPs who are now wetting their beds after their party was pulverised in Tiverton and Honiton, previously a blue bastion, and rejected in Wakefield, one of the red wall prizes they took at the last general election. Tories have long been apprehensive about how they could please both their traditional supporters in the south and their newer voters in northern England. As it turns out, they have infuriated both wings of their 2019 electoral coalition.
Labour’s victory in Wakefield is a timely fillip for Sir Keir Starmer that may subdue some of the internal chuntering about the Labour leader’s performance. This time last year, the Tories reckoned their grip on red wall seats was still firm and had evidence to prove it when they inflicted a humiliating defeat on Labour at the Hartlepool byelection. Sir Keir’s leadership went through what one of his friends calls a “near-death experience”. Taking Wakefield secures his position unless Durham police issue him with a fine. The biggest caveat about the result is that the fall in the Tory vote was more than twice as large as the rise in Labour support. This suggests that discontent with the Conservatives was a more powerful factor than enthusiasm for Labour. That ought to prod Sir Keir to start communicating his ambitions for Britain with more confidence and boldness.
The Lib Dems have pulled off many byelection spectaculars over the decades, but Tiverton and Honiton is genuinely unprecedented. By numerical size of the majority overturned, there has been nothing like it in the history of byelections. It was a blistering rebuke to the government from an area of Devon that has not had a non-Conservative MP for well over a century. This makes a hat-trick of thumping byelection wins for Sir Ed Davey’s party in the past 12 months and they were accompanied by a strong showing in May’s local elections. After years when Conservative MPs thought they had little to fear from the Lib Dems, the “yellow peril” is back to menace the Tories in their shire and suburban heartlands.
It is obviously true that byelections can be an unreliable guide to what will happen at the next general election, but they still tell us a story about public opinion, and that shapes the political mood. After conversations with frightened colleagues, one former Conservative cabinet minister reports that these terrible results for his party “reinforces the feeling that the locomotive is inexorably heading towards the buffers”.
The ‘yellow peril’ is back to menace the Tories in their shire and suburban heartlands
The most alarming development for them is the clear evidence that the anti-Tory majority is learning anew how to use its votes most efficiently. There was no encouragement of tactical voting at the 2017 and 2019 general elections because a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour party was highly antagonistic towards the Lib Dems and vice versa. That’s changed. These results vindicate the unspoken pact between Sir Keir and Sir Ed to concentrate their efforts where each has the best chance of unseating a Tory. They demonstrate that there is no need for the parties to strike a formal electoral deal. A nudge was enough to get voters behind the progressive party best placed to beat the Conservatives.
In Devon, a large chunk of Labour’s previous support switched behind the Lib Dems as the most effective instrument to express anger with the Tories by depriving them of the seat. In Yorkshire, Lib Dem voters reciprocated by giving a helping hand to the Labour candidate. As the distinguished psephologist Peter Kellner remarks: “Tactical voting is back with a vengeance.”
It has also been evident in other recent byelections as voters have learned that the most potent way to punish the government is to mobilise behind the challenger with the optimal chance of evicting the Conservatives. One senior Tory says: “The worry for us is that these byelections are teaching people how to hurt us.” Split opposition votes helped the Conservatives to turn a minority vote share into an 80-seat parliamentary majority in 2019. Tactical opposition voting has great potential to sweep that majority away next time around. Nearly all of the Labour and Lib Dem target seats are held by the Conservatives. Lending each other votes is a win-win for them and a lose-lose for the Tories. The scale of tactical voting seen at these byelections is unlikely to be fully replicated at a general election, but even a milder version of it will greatly enhance the chances of removing the Conservatives from power.
This erstwhile devotee of the Johnson cult has broken free of his brainwashing to become another Tory to realise that the prime minister has to go
A shiver is going around members of the cabinet looking for a spine to run down. Craven senior ministers continue to prevaricate about doing something, but there was a batsqueak of dissent from one of the government’s lesser figures. I’ve heard a lot of Tories saying that the most telling event of the past 48 hours was Oliver Dowden’s resignation as co-chair of the party. This is regarded as notable within his party because he was an early endorser of Mr Johnson’s leadership campaign three years ago and has been a slavish apologist for the prime minister throughout “Partygate”. In the early hours of Friday morning, Mr Dowden was suddenly reacquainted with his conscience. Or perhaps he had finally exhausted his appetite for trying to defend an indefensible leader. Or perhaps he realised he was in the frame as the fall guy for these byelections and chose to jump before he was scapegoated. “We cannot carry on with business as usual,” he wrote in his resignation letter. That is hardly a clarion cry for change with the punch of “in the name of God, go”. Yet it still matters because it tells us that this erstwhile devotee of the Johnson cult has broken free of his brainwashing to become another Tory to realise that the prime minister has to go.
Some of those who tried to oust the Tory leader a fortnight ago can be heard ruefully conjecturing that they might have got the 180 votes they needed had the confidence vote been triggered after these results. There are few who expect that another attempt to remove him is imminent, but many think he will be very lucky to get through the next year without a further challenge. “More faggots have been piled on the pyre,” says one of the Tories who wants him out.
For most Conservative MPs, the debate about whether to remove him has never been about morality. He would have been long gone if that was the test. The argument has been about electability. He has been sustained by those Tories who believed he was the only one of them with the appeal to attract traditional Labour voters in places such as Wakefield and traditional true blues in areas such as Tiverton and Honiton. That case has not survived contact with the voters in these very different parts of England. In red wall and blue wall alike, Mr Johnson certainly attracted votes – against his party. So much also for the notion that he can revive himself by redividing the country along the battle lines of Brexit. Both these constituencies voted to leave the EU, but now reject the Tories. Either they are becoming disillusioned with the evident failures of Brexit or they no longer regard it as the most important issue.
Either way, Brexit sorcery has ceased to work for Mr Johnson. In the run-up to these byelections, he attempted to firm up the Tory vote by picking a fight with the bishops over the scheme to export asylum seekers to Rwanda and another one with Europe over the Northern Ireland protocol. Rather than do anything to resolve the rail strikes, he sought to exploit them to wound Labour. None of that could save the Tories in either Devon or Yorkshire. If he ever was an electoral magician, he now looks like a wizard with a broken wand.
Two things are keeping him in office for the moment. A feeble cabinet is too pusillanimous to move against a deeply discredited and wildly unpopular prime minister. That feeds the other factor, which is the continuing doubt among Conservative MPs that there is anyone among them who would be a more credible and electable leader than a law-breaking liar. Tories look upon Boris Johnson and despair. Then they consider his potential successors and despair again. That is another reason for them to panic.
• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer