October 20, 2023 - 7:45am

It was the worst possible outcome for the Conservative Party. Twin by-election defeats, with massive swings against them. In Mid Bedfordshire, it was the overturning of nearly a century of Tory wins; in Tamworth, it was the second-biggest swing since the war. There is no spin, no expectation management and no consolation that can mitigate this. It was a humiliation. 

Both seats the Conservatives should have held without breaking a sweat. Affluent places on the rural-urban fringe, contests they entered with twenty-thousand-plus majorities. Instead, the party haemorrhaged votes. In Mid Beds, in particular, they lost on two fronts, with a huge increase in the Liberal Democrat share too. Repeated nationwide, these results would leave the Tories on just twenty seats, with Labour enjoying a majority of close to 250. 

By-elections are an exaggeration, and those results will not be realised. They do, however, point to trends. The Tories are being beaten back everywhere. People want them out. Even in rock-solid seats, held through the darkness of 1997, voters will take a chance to give them a kicking. It presents a huge electoral challenge. 

Running into the next election, the Conservatives are fighting on every front. The alienated Labour voters of 2019 have swung back to the party. The disillusioned Tories of Middle England are staying home, voting Lib Dem or even backing Labour. The Conservatives are slipping back to their true core vote, and will need a sophisticated message which draws back the left of the party without pushing away the right. 

More than that, the results in both Mid Beds and Tamworth point towards efficient tactical voting. In the former in particular, there was a worry among the opposition that a three-way split might help the Tories hold the seat. Instead, although the Lib Dem vote did increase, the anti-Tory vote largely split towards Labour. In Tamworth, the Liberals dropped to seventh, tying with the Green Party. If this pattern does materialise across the country, the Conservatives could find themselves vulnerable in a wave of seats that would look mathematically safe. 

This also presents them with logistical problems. Campaigns, especially when you are unpopular, are fought with limited time and constrained resources. Choosing where to deploy them makes a huge difference to the outcome. In 1997, the Tories made the mistake of lingering too long in seats in which they had no chance and neglecting the real battleground. Once again, they will have to make these sorts of tough decisions — based on a deep, humiliating honesty about where things actually stand. 

Aside from the electoral implications, there is a broader problem for the Conservatives embedded in these losses. The successive large defeats give a sense that this government is spent, unpopular, and just waiting to be ousted. It remains within Rishi Sunak’s gift to decide when the election is, but time is running out. The more he holds on, the greater the sense will be that he is just putting off the inevitable — which will only aggravate voters. 

Equally, it undermines his authority. More and more, his administration is imbued with the sense of being a caretaker government. The decisions made are just temporary, the long-term announcements simply illusory, and the real decisions will be made when Sir Keir Starmer takes the reins. Paradoxically, it has little time left to get things done, but a lot of time left to linger. 

In the last batch of by-elections, much was made of the semi-upset in Uxbridge. It gave the Tories hope. Last night showed that was delusional, treating an unnecessarily narrow as an act of triumph. The trend is clear: the Tories are losing badly in places where they should have never had to fear defeat. It’s time for them to accept that the next election is about staving off catastrophe.

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