They are capable of undergoing multiple regenerations while still in office
Forget the faux sophisticated attempts to explain away Hartlepool. It is, by any standard, a stunning result.
Just compare it to every other time since the war that a governing party won a by-election:
Biggest % point increases in gov party vote share in post-war Westminster by-elections:
7.3 (Lab, Preston 1946)
8.5 (Con, Copeland 2017)
8.9 (Lab, Hull N 1966)
9.8 (Con, Barnsley 1953)
12.0 (Lab, Bournemouth 1945)
23.0 (Con, Hartlepool 2021)
— Matt Singh (@MattSingh_) May 7, 2021
What’s more, this has happened after eleven years of continuous Tory government. Or has it?
Yes, we’ve had a Conservative Prime Minister for more than decade. But the government in 2010 looks nothing like the government in 2021 — and nor does the Conservative Party.
In that time, the Conservatives chewed up and spat out the Lib Dems. They replaced one Prime Minister with another — and when that didn’t work out they did it again. They ripped themselves apart over Brexit and then, with freakish rapidity, pulled themselves back together.
Most remarkably, the Tories have completely repositioned themselves. The liberal conservative party of eleven years ago has become the patriotic populist party of today. Under Dave they leaned Right on economics and Left on cultural issues, but under Boris they’ve reversed the formula. In the process they sacrificed seats like Oxford West and Abingdon, but gained dozens more — all the way to Hartlepool and possibly beyond.
Not without reason, there’s a whole lot of attention right now on Labour’s weaknesses; but the analysis is incomplete without a consideration of Tory strengths. Or, indeed, their unearthly super-powers.
This is the Doctor Who of political parties, capable of undergoing multiple regenerations while still in office. Goodness knows, it’s not that they don’t make mistakes; but just when you think they’re done for, there’s a burst of light and up they pop again.
Suddenly there’s a new face, a new personality, a new set of clothes — but on they go until the next crisis. Their enemies might prefer to replace the Doctor with the Master in this analogy, but either way there’s no denying it: the Conservative Party is protean.
What should really worry Labour is that the Tories have further regenerations ready to go. Should Boris Johnson fall under a giant roll of wallpaper, Rishi Sunak is waiting in the wings. Or looking further ahead, it may be another rising star — Kemi Badenoch, for instance. I wouldn’t rule out a return for Ruth Davidson either.
So as Labour struggles to make sense of the current situation, it needs to think beyond the present. They’re not just up against the Conservative Party as it is now, but all the Conservative Parties that are to come.