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Holding Uxbridge won’t save the Tories

A narrow victory in Uxbridge is scant consolation for Rishi Sunak. Credit: Getty

July 21, 2023 - 7:15am

With one win and two losses, yesterday’s by-elections were not as bad as many feared for the Conservative Party, but saving Uxbridge by fewer than 500 votes should really provide the party with little comfort. They might have avoided humiliation, but each result points to a difficult electoral test when it comes to the next general election. 

Somerton and Frome was a test of the potential for a Liberal Democrat resurgence in the South West. This is the sort of battleground which gave the Tories a majority in 2015 and kept them in power afterwards. Here, they were vanquished with a swing of nearly 30%. Such a performance hints at a return to the pre-coalition days, where a host of West Country seats were yellow. It should make the Tories worry about how big the Lib Dem challenge could be across the Blue Wall, and whether Home Counties seats might also tip the same way. 

Perhaps more concerning for the party is the result in Selby. This was the biggest majority Labour have overturned in a by-election, and the second biggest swing they have achieved — only beaten by 1994’s Dudley result, the first harbinger of the Blairite recovery. This shows that some of the worst polling estimates may be true, and seats way down Labour’s target list are in play. Now even Tories with very big majorities will be afraid. 

Of course, the Conservatives will be making much of their retention of Uxbridge. With a far more slender majority, this is the sort of place Sir Keir Starmer would have to sweep through to achieve a majority. Losing here shows that he has not yet gained the all-conquering popularity that he might need, and that Labour are vulnerable when they can be pressed on a prominent local issue like Ulez, which undoubtedly helped the Tories in this case. Yet winning single-issue seats by a few hundred votes is hard to repeat in a general election. 

This points to the difficult position that has emerged from these polls for the Tories. It has confirmed that they are unpopular, that tactical voting stacks up, and that big majorities are vulnerable. It also makes clear that they will be fighting the next general election on all fronts, with both Labour and the Lib Dems capable of big upsets. This makes it very hard to strategise. 

Politically, the party will have to appeal to a broad range of voters moving in different directions. Their coalition is no longer held together by Brexit (nearly 60% of Selby voted Leave) nor by fear of Jeremy Corbyn. It’s hard to know whether moving to the Left or the Right pulls in more votes than it loses, and it will be impossible to find a Ulez variant for every constituency.

Equally, on the ground the Tories face the question of where to deploy resources. This triple test has shown that a great many seats are still to play for, but that numbers don’t necessarily confirm where is and isn’t winnable. This presents a logistical headache for assigning scarce members and money, which have to be spread more carefully than at a by-election. 

Last night was not a catastrophe for the Conservative Party, but most of the indicators are that one is coming. The party has a narrow path to tread to salvage the next election and little time to do it, especially as Sunak struggles to make headway on his five pledges. Starmer probably has easier lessons to draw from last night and has a chance of channelling this into real momentum. 

The Tories avoided the worst-case scenario last night. In by-elections, that buys you some time. At the next general election, that still may mean just about avoiding total evisceration.


John Oxley is a corporate strategist and political commentator. His Substack is Joxley Writes.

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Matt M
Matt M
10 months ago

Avoid recession, get inflation back to normal levels, NHS strikes over, stop boats, put a 100k limit on legal immigration, push back the petrol engine and gas boiler phasing out by 10 years, ban woke nonsense in schools, licence fracking. Bob’s your uncle! An unprecedented 5th election win!

Last edited 10 months ago by Matt M
Simon Denis
Simon Denis
10 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

But will they do it? Not on current trends.

Matt M
Matt M
10 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

I’m not holding my breath!

Matt M
Matt M
10 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

I’m not holding my breath!

Stuart Woolvin
Stuart Woolvin
10 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

‘Stop boats’ is nigh impossible, and I think you would have them leave ECHR etc which would be a huge crisis
As 100k migrants – they’re issuing the visas, so they (Treasury etc) clearly want them

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
10 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

But will they do it? Not on current trends.

Stuart Woolvin
Stuart Woolvin
10 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

‘Stop boats’ is nigh impossible, and I think you would have them leave ECHR etc which would be a huge crisis
As 100k migrants – they’re issuing the visas, so they (Treasury etc) clearly want them

Matt M
Matt M
10 months ago

Avoid recession, get inflation back to normal levels, NHS strikes over, stop boats, put a 100k limit on legal immigration, push back the petrol engine and gas boiler phasing out by 10 years, ban woke nonsense in schools, licence fracking. Bob’s your uncle! An unprecedented 5th election win!

Last edited 10 months ago by Matt M
Simon Denis
Simon Denis
10 months ago

The Tories have fallen between two stools – alienating the former Brexit vote and failing to woo the old supporters of “Bremain”. Two further conclusions are inevitable. First, anyone except for a Central Office strategist could have told them that “Bremain” will never forgive them; second, that Brexit wants low migration, not futile public expenditure. Finally, it is almost impossible to come back from such a school-boy error. The historical question will be: who is responsible? Answer: Johnson.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
10 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

“not futile public expenditure”
I am sure Levelling up was/is very popular in the Left Behind Areas.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
10 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

“not futile public expenditure”
I am sure Levelling up was/is very popular in the Left Behind Areas.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
10 months ago

The Tories have fallen between two stools – alienating the former Brexit vote and failing to woo the old supporters of “Bremain”. Two further conclusions are inevitable. First, anyone except for a Central Office strategist could have told them that “Bremain” will never forgive them; second, that Brexit wants low migration, not futile public expenditure. Finally, it is almost impossible to come back from such a school-boy error. The historical question will be: who is responsible? Answer: Johnson.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
10 months ago

These discussions are pointless without considering the most important statistic of all – the turnout this time compared with last time. In a by-election in (almost) holiday time, turnout is generally low. After all, who cares and what difference will any result make with a large Tory majority.

In a general election, where the future of the country is seen as at stake, voters are much more likely to turn out. In Selby I suspect the turnout was low because Conservative voters stayed at home, the LibDem vote collapsed and went to the not very impressive Labour winner. In a general election the Tory stay at homes are likely to turn out and vote to keep Labour out.

In Uxbridge (which has got a boundary change coming up, which must be one reason why Boris did not want to fight it, the issue must surely be Khan. Perhaps that got Tories out and waverers to protest? But it is likely to go Labour next time.

Somerton is classic Liberal protest vote, also will revert to Conservatives next time, unless the new LibDem MP is exceptionally impressive (more than Sir Who?).

So actually suggests a quite encouraging result for Rishi if he can find his Beginners Guide to Conservative Policies. And also get some decent candidates, many Tory MP’s at the moment are deeply
unimpressive.

Last edited 10 months ago by JR Stoker
JR Stoker
JR Stoker
10 months ago

These discussions are pointless without considering the most important statistic of all – the turnout this time compared with last time. In a by-election in (almost) holiday time, turnout is generally low. After all, who cares and what difference will any result make with a large Tory majority.

In a general election, where the future of the country is seen as at stake, voters are much more likely to turn out. In Selby I suspect the turnout was low because Conservative voters stayed at home, the LibDem vote collapsed and went to the not very impressive Labour winner. In a general election the Tory stay at homes are likely to turn out and vote to keep Labour out.

In Uxbridge (which has got a boundary change coming up, which must be one reason why Boris did not want to fight it, the issue must surely be Khan. Perhaps that got Tories out and waverers to protest? But it is likely to go Labour next time.

Somerton is classic Liberal protest vote, also will revert to Conservatives next time, unless the new LibDem MP is exceptionally impressive (more than Sir Who?).

So actually suggests a quite encouraging result for Rishi if he can find his Beginners Guide to Conservative Policies. And also get some decent candidates, many Tory MP’s at the moment are deeply
unimpressive.

Last edited 10 months ago by JR Stoker
James Kirk
James Kirk
10 months ago

In a once Tory stronghold a Postman wins the seat. In Selby, a real stronghold, a snotnosed PPE Grad. If things don’t get worse, by the GE, the Postie will stay, the boy, his P45.

James Kirk
James Kirk
10 months ago

In a once Tory stronghold a Postman wins the seat. In Selby, a real stronghold, a snotnosed PPE Grad. If things don’t get worse, by the GE, the Postie will stay, the boy, his P45.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
10 months ago

The Tories need to stop trying to appeal to people who’ll never vote for them.

John Galt Was Correct
John Galt Was Correct
10 months ago

They never learn. Alienate natural voters and chase those that will never vote for them. I know a Tory councillor and when asked why they don’t do what their voters want they respond ‘because the Guardian readers and Labour start squealing about it’. I have given up explaining that Guardian readers will never, ever vote Tory.

John Galt Was Correct
John Galt Was Correct
10 months ago

They never learn. Alienate natural voters and chase those that will never vote for them. I know a Tory councillor and when asked why they don’t do what their voters want they respond ‘because the Guardian readers and Labour start squealing about it’. I have given up explaining that Guardian readers will never, ever vote Tory.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
10 months ago

The Tories need to stop trying to appeal to people who’ll never vote for them.

brian knott
brian knott
10 months ago

Selby , Labour gained 3000 votes, that’s it.
The 6 O’Clock news on Weds had been a Party Political Broadcast for Labour. The BBC News website basically told everyone that it was all a foregone conclusion.
And it wasn’t.
No massive surge for Labour. Tories held a seat

brian knott
brian knott
10 months ago

Selby , Labour gained 3000 votes, that’s it.
The 6 O’Clock news on Weds had been a Party Political Broadcast for Labour. The BBC News website basically told everyone that it was all a foregone conclusion.
And it wasn’t.
No massive surge for Labour. Tories held a seat