February 16, 2024 - 7:15am

So, 1997 it is then. That, at least, is one conclusion that’s hard to avoid after another catastrophic set of results for the Conservative Party overnight. In the Wellingborough and Kingswood by-elections, Labour overturned Tory majorities of more than 18,000 and over 11,000 respectively.

There can be little doubt now about the scale of Rishi Sunak’s challenge ahead of the general election. His party is more than 20 points behind Labour in the polls, the economy is in recession and a sizeable number of his MPs are in open revolt. To make matters worse, the Tories now have a genuine threat on their Right in the shape of Reform. In both by-elections last night the party founded by Nigel Farage finished third, with 13% of the vote in Wellingborough and 10% in Kingswood — a result that would not be enough to win it any seats, but would be enough to severely damage the Conservative Party’s electoral prospects. In Kingswood, the votes that went to Reform would have won the Tories the by-election.

As Professor John Curtice has pointed out, a pattern has now formed in these by-elections whose closest parallel is the collapse in support for the Conservative Party in successive by-elections between 1992-1997 following the calamity of Black Wednesday and Parliamentary civil war over Maastricht.

In his autobiography Major writes about one particularly “calamitous” result in 1993, when the party lost to the surging Liberal Democrats. “The constituencies were in despair,” he wrote. “Dispute after dispute hit the Parliamentary party […] It was a miserable period.” As the defeats mounted, party discipline broke down, sapping further energy from the battle. “Fighting one’s political opponents is the very stuff of politics,” Major later reflected. “It quickens the blood. But fighting one’s colleagues was immensely painful. It deadened the appetite.” One can’t help but feel something similar is at play today as the Tory Party turns inwards, unsure what options it has to save itself from the mess it has created.

The lessons of history, though, are not always clear. The 1993 by-election Major reflected upon is notable less for the result itself — victory for the Liberal Democrats — than for the emergence of a lonely Eurosceptic protest party called the Anti-Federalist League. The Newbury by-election that year was the first time Alan Sked’s new party had stood for Parliament. It received a paltry 600 votes, yet within a year it would transform itself into Ukip — or “The U.K.I.P.” as it was then known. Helping Sked that day in Newbury was a young activist called Nigel Farage, whose job was to chauffeur the aging Enoch Powell down from London to help the campaign.

Despite Sked’s poor showing in 1993, the Anti-Federalist League’s very existence held a mirror to the fractious political mood of the country at the time, which had been stirred up by the Maastricht rebellions. By the time 1997 came around, it would not be Sked’s Ukip that was the main torchbearer of this rebellious flame, but instead Jimmy Goldsmith’s now largely forgotten Referendum Party, which was then doing to the Tories what Reform is threatening to do today. 

Then-leader of the Referendum Party James Goldsmith in 1996.

The Referendum Party finished with just 2.6% of the vote in 1997, and yet it changed British politics forever. Amid similarly dire polls to those facing Sunak today, Major moved to neuter Goldsmith’s appeal by offering a referendum on the euro which was then matched by Tony Blair — a commitment which, in hindsight, all but ended the prospect of British membership of the single currency. The story of Britain’s eventual exit from the European Union travels through Newbury.

Today, if anything, the situation is far worse for the Conservatives. Just as before, the party is riven following an economic crisis of its own causing — only this time fresher in the mind and far more consequential for people’s actual living standards. This is once again translating into a similar cycle of by-election drubbings eating away at the Government’s ability to function and the emergence of a new party to the Tories’ Right, forcing demands for concessions.

The Tory vote collapsed from 41.9% in 1992 to just 30.7% in 1997, a loss of more than four million votes and 178 MPs. Major handed over a party with a rump of just 165 MPs. Right now, some of the Tory MPs I’ve spoken to would take this as a good result.

Tom McTague is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.