Greg Hands, Conservative party chair, on Friday morning surveyed a scene of by-election devastation in two rock-solid Tory seats in Yorkshire in the north and Somerset in the south of England and admitted: “We need to do better.”
The Tory defeats in Selby and Ainsty, and Somerton and Frome were on a massive scale, the sort of setbacks that can presage general election disaster, especially when the next national poll is only a year away.
But while Hands rued losses, UK prime minister Rishi Sunak was quick to head to Uxbridge in west London to celebrate an unexpected victory in a third by-election, a win that gave his party a glimmer of hope on a dark morning.
Sitting in the Rumbling Tum café with the victorious Tory candidate Steve Tuckwell, Sunak said: “Westminster’s been acting like the next election is a done deal. The Labour party has been acting like it’s a done deal. The people of Uxbridge just told all of them that it’s not.”
As the dust settles on a night of drama, Conservative strategists will be poring over what happened in Uxbridge, former premier Boris Johnson’s old seat, to see if it offers any clues on how to fight or even win the next general election.
On the face of it, this is heroic political straw-clutching. After all, Sunak’s party had just lost a majority of more than 20,000 in Selby and Ainsty in North Yorkshire to Labour.
It was the biggest margin ever overturned by the opposition party in a by-election on a swing of more than 21 per cent, and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said it was “a historic result” that showed Britain was ready for change.
The Tory defeat in Somerton and Frome was on even bigger swing of 28.4 per cent, a majority of over 19,000 turning to dust and being replaced by a Liberal Democrat majority exceeding 10,000.
The results are ominous for the Conservatives, because they confirm Sunak is fighting on two fronts, with Labour the main opponent in the Midlands and North and the Lib Dems in the South and South West.
Both by-elections confirmed widespread anti-Tory tactical voting, a fact acknowledged by Sarah Dyke, the victorious Lib Dem candidate in Somerset, who said Green and Labour supporters had “lent” her their votes.
In Somerton and Frome Labour won only 1,009 votes, compared with the Lib Dems’ 21,187. In Selby, conversely, the Lib Dems won 1,188 votes compared with Labour’s 16,456.
A Lib Dem resurgence in the West Country — a longstanding stronghold for the centre party last in power in 2015 as the junior member in coalition government — is a new problem facing Sunak in a region whose political map is currently almost exclusively blue.
And yet, the result in Uxbridge raised some intriguing political questions for both parties. A Tory win was not in the script — bookmakers had been offering odds of 10-1 on such a result — and was subject to much scrutiny.
Tuckwell attributed his victory not to any enthusiasm for Sunak but to Sadiq Khan, Labour mayor of London, who will next month roll out a £12.50 daily charge to drivers of heavy polluting vehicles in outer London boroughs.
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner admitted that the extension of the ultra low emission zone (Ulez) had been “a major issue”, but some Conservatives believe the electoral lessons of Uxbridge could be applied more widely.
Tory strategists have recently attempted to suggest that Britain cannot afford Labour’s enthusiasm for green initiatives, including a proposed £28bn-a-year borrowing splurge to fund a “green prosperity plan”.
Voters in Uxbridge shared concerns about the cost of meeting environmental objectives when times are tough. Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg, former Tory cabinet minister, told the BBC: “High-cost green policies are not popular.”
Hands insisted that his party would not turn its back on objectives such as banning the sale of new diesel and petrol cars from 2030 or achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050, but cautioned that people needed time to adapt.
“You cannot give them only nine months of time to get rid of their existing car and buy a new one,” he said. A Tory general election campaign based around claims that Labour would move too fast — and at too great a cost — on green issues could resonate.
The Uxbridge result also suggests that the attraction of Starmer and his remodelled party is not strong enough if there are powerful economic factors pushing in the other direction. In Uxbridge, Labour failed to overcome a majority of 7,210.
Labour MPs admit that their leader, for all his success in transforming his party into a prospective government, has not captured the public imagination in the same way as Sir Tony Blair ahead of the 1997 general election, which delivered him a landslide.
Sunak’s challenge will be to identify issues, such as Ulez in Uxbridge, that can somehow persuade voters across the country that a switch to Labour would be risky and a potentially expensive move. Given Starmer’s risk-averse approach, it is not obvious what they might be.
In the meantime, Sunak hopes that his MPs will return to Westminster in September from their summer break — which starts on Friday — refreshed and prepared to accept his insistence that the outcome of the next election is not yet “a done deal”.