But three by-elections later this month will be brutal for the Tories
On 23rd September 2022, the government of Liz Truss was destroyed by the infamous mini-budget. Less than a year later, Rishi Sunak finds himself facing his own mini-nemesis — in his case, a mini-general election.
It isn’t the first time we’ve had a cluster of by-elections. The record was set on 23rd January 1986, following the mass resignation of fifteen Unionist MPs. Compared to that, the three-ring circus later this month seems rather modest. However, as with the other two constituencies currently in play, these are all seats that were held by the Conservatives in 2019 — four of them with five-figure majorities.
Losing them all would therefore be cataclysmic — especially as they’re spread across England, representing five different regions from Yorkshire to the West Country. What clearer portent could there be of a Tory wipeout at the actual general election?
The temporal spacing of the by-elections is also unhelpful. A triple whammy on the 20th would be bad enough. But the prospect of two further humiliations — whose timing Sunak does not control — greatly complicates any attempt by him to reset his government with a major reshuffle.
The window of opportunity would be after the bad news of all the by-elections, but before the Conservative Party conference in October. It would be simply too awkward to have big-name Cabinet ministers deliver podium speeches if they’re about to be sacked.
It may be that Sunak’s parliamentary colleagues decide that he is the one who needs sacking. However, there’s a real reluctance to press the red button again. It would mean another soul-crushing leadership contest — ending in the imposition of a third “unelected” prime minister. Nothing would be more likely to precipitate an immediate general election and the proper shoeing that would bring upon the Conservative Party.
On the other hand, Tories of an impatient disposition might view this as the best case scenario. The sooner that the useless party establishment goes down in flames, the sooner that something better can rise from the ashes.
It is increasingly hard to disagree with them. Since 2019, the Conservatives have had three chances to get it right. They’ve tried having a populist (Johnson) lead them, followed by an ideologue (Truss), followed by a technocrat (Sunak). The fact that these markedly different approaches have all foundered suggests that the problem goes much deeper than any particular leader. Hence the need for the kind of renewal that can only follow a devastating defeat.
And yet the Sunak approach has still to run its course. Even those who are most deeply disappointed in his government must give it the chance to succeed — or, more likely, the chance to fail from within. There should be no stab in the back — or even the front. His failure, if and when it comes, must belong to him and his acolytes. Only then can the Tories ask themselves why they keep on choosing losers.