It was the result Boris Johnson was dreading, but it was the result he got nonetheless. Last week, the Tories lost both by-elections in the seats of Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton. In Devon, the Lib Dems were celebrating after smashing a Tory majority of 24,000.
Helen Hurford, the humiliated Tory candidate arrived at the count, but hid in the room of a leisure centre and refused to speak to reporters. It was the first time the Tories had ever been defeated in the constituency.
And in West Yorkshire, Labour candidate Simon Lightwood presided over a 12 percent swing from Conservatives to Labour. Pressure is mounting on Johnson to resign, and members of his own party are among the loudest voices calling for him to go.
Party chair Olive Dowden stood down after “the latest in a run of very poor results in our party”. “We cannot carry on with business as usual”, he declared. Yet so far Johnson is standing firm—just about.
Under current rules, Tory MPs can’t force another leadership vote on him for a year. But angry backbench MPs are seeking election to the powerful 1922 committee, so they can make it easier to challenge his leadership.
The explanation for the results doesn’t simply lie in a widespread and deep mistrust of Johnson’s government. It’s extremely likely that top bods from the Labour and Lib Dems agreed to tactically withdraw their forces from one constituency, making each more likely to secure victory in the other.
This taps into the feeling in places such as Devon that only the Lib Dems can oust the Tories in elections. Labour didn’t campaign heavily in Tiverton and Honiton and polled so poorly it lost its deposit.
For the Lib Dems, it was an identical picture in Wakefield. But such electoral pacts aren’t helpful. The Lib Dems are through and through a party of austerity, having been in coalition with the Tories’ brutal regime of 2010-2015.
And Keir Starmer’s Labour party needs to take on the Tories over the cost of living crisis. Being drawn into electoral pacts with the Lib Dems is a distraction that pulls the party further to the right and away from the kind of confrontation that can beat Johnson.
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