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.