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By-election blues for Sunak’s Conservatives bodes ill for the party in 2024


Lord Peter Hain is a former British Cabinet Minister and anti-apartheid campaigner whose memoir, ‘A Pretoria Boy: South Africa’s ‘Public Enemy Number One’, is published by Jonathan Ball.

The startling loss by Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives at the polls this week – in supposedly rock-solid Tory constituencies – does not bode well for the party in next year's UK general election especially as Keir Starmer’s Labour Party makes the most of the Tories’ fumbles in recent years.

There were no silver linings for Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party in Thursday’s parliamentary by-elections in England – indeed, according to Britain’s top pollster guru, Professor John Curtice, Sunak is in for a drubbing at next year’s UK general election.

Tamworth and Mid-Bedfordshire were rock-solid Conservative constituencies, yet both were lost to Labour. No British government has ever lost as safe a seat as Tamworth to its main rivals. The Conservative majority there in 2019 was fully 42%. 

The 24% swing to Labour in Tamworth was the second-highest swing in by-election history, Mid-Bedfordshire only a little behind.

Of course, by-elections are very different from general elections: an opportunity to protest rather than to choose a government. But these were no standard by-election blues for a ruling party. According to Curtice, they were more like by-elections in the 1992–97 parliament, at the end of which there was a Labour landslide. 

Indeed, in that parliament, Labour also won Tamworth – under Tony Blair in 1996. The party has never won Mid-Bedfordshire in true blue Tory English Home Counties. 

Until the middle of last year, Keir Starmer’s Labour Party was not performing well enough to have a sniff at forming the next government, it being assumed that there was far too much voter ground to make up after Jeremy Corbyn’s disastrous performance in 2019. 

But things have changed dramatically since, first with the exposure in mid-2022 of Boris Johnson’s “party-gate scandal” – his blatant parties at 10 Downing Street during Covid-19 lockdowns, when ordinary citizens were not even able to attend the funerals of loved ones under rules he’d enforced. 

Second, and even more dramatic, was the disastrous 44 days of Liz Truss’s premiership, during which interest rates soared and economic confidence plummeted. Traditional Tory claims to be the party of “sound money” and “prudent financial management” collapsed almost overnight and have not recovered.

Labour has enjoyed big opinion poll leads ever since, Sir Keir Starmer’s personal ratings jumping too.

Normally the gap tightens by general election time when voters start to focus upon whom they really want in power rather than whom they are protesting against. Most people expect the election to be around May or October next year. 

So, Labour cannot take anything for granted, and Starmer’s team certainly isn’t – not least because Labour governments have been the exception rather than the rule over the past century. Labour is expecting a dirty election, with Sunak already hunkering down on Trump-type agenda – including vilifying refugees, championing motorists facing speed limits and abandoning net-zero policies.

But his big problem is the cost-of-living crisis, miserably low economic growth and poor productivity over 13 years of Tory governments, public services stretched to breaking point because of Tory cuts and a sense – especially post Brexit – of inexorable British decline. 

As of now, plenty of Conservative MPs look certain to lose in 2024, most to Labour, the rest to the Liberal Democrats (who, remember, did very well during the Labour landslides of 1997 and 2001, by taking Conservative constituencies in the southwest and south of England, where Labour has traditionally been weak). 

But after Thursday’s Tamworth and Mid-Bedfordshire by-elections Labour could win almost anywhere. DM

Former anti-apartheid campaigner and Labour Cabinet Minister, Lord Hain’s recent memoir is A Pretoria Boy: South Africa’s ‘Public Enemy Number One’, published by Jonathan Ball.


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