To say that the past four weeks have been bad for Boris Johnson would be an understatement. A month ago, Sue Gray delivered her long-awaited report into Covid-19 rule breaking at No. 10, which itself followed a Metropolitan Police investigation that resulted in Johnson receiving a fixed penalty fine. Two weeks ago, 41 percent of Conservative MPs declared that they had no confidence in their leader; one week ago, there was yet another story on No. 10’s attempts to spike a report relating to the Prime Minister’s wife; and last week, on the sixth anniversary of the Brexit referendum, Johnson lost two Brexit voting constituencies to the Liberal Democrats and Labour.
The results of the by-election in Tiverton and Honiton, a seat that had been held by no other party since its creation in 1997, to the Liberal Democrats, represents the sixth-largest by-election swing against a government since 1945 with a swing of 38.6%. Meanwhile, in Wakefield, the Conservatives lost the Red Wall seat to Labour with a swing of 8.1%. These results are significant for two key reasons:
Firstly, both constituencies voted strongly in favour of Brexit in 2016, with Tiverton and Honiton voting to leave the EU by 57.82%, and Wakefield by 62.77%. In recent months, and especially in the run-up to the confidence vote and yesterday’s by-elections, Conservative ministers rallying behind Johnson have been speaking of Brexit only in the past tense: “he delivered Brexit”, noted Nadine Dorries. The problem with this is that while Brexit is a long-term process, and not a single event, for voters in the Red Wall, Brexit, as they see it, has been achieved. Moreover, leave-voters have indicated they’re willing to endure short-term economic pain for the long-term gains they believe will be delivered by Brexit. This could suggest that while voters in the Red Wall were happy to loan the Conservatives their vote to “get Brexit done”, this was very much a loan and many will revert to voting Labour in future elections.
Secondly, the results in Wakefield are significant because this is a constituency that should have been motivated by the Conservatives’ flagship agenda, Levelling Up, which according to a white paper issued in February will spread economic opportunities and wealth equally across the UK. However, almost three years since the last general election tangible signs of levelling up remain tenuous, and there continues to be huge disparities in the delivery of affordable housing in the north of England, when compared to London and the South East. One reason for this is that the UK’s economic performance and its recovery from the pandemic has been lacklustre; it currently sits at the bottom of the G7 and is the second to last in the G20, sitting only just ahead of sanction-hit Russia.
The reality is that Brexit has presented a number of issues both to the economy and the union, and as much as Johnson and his cabinet see its delivery as a key success of their administration, the results of yesterday’s by-elections suggest that leave-voters do not exclusively rely on the Conservatives to continue delivering its benefits. Moreover, despite Wakefield being strongly in favour of leave, the Conservatives chose a candidate, Nadeem Ahmed, who dropped his support for Brexit, noting that it was “built on lies”. The lack of the Conservatives’ challenge on his views also suggests that the party was willing to concede Wakefield and pour resources into campaigning to keep hold of Tiverton and Honiton. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrat candidate (now MP) for Tiverton and Honiton based his election campaign on a dual approach of placing more emphasis on highlighting the numerous scandals surrounding Johnson, and consequently his unsuitability for office, and noting how little progress has been made post-Brexit. As a pro-remain party, not placing too much emphasis on Brexit was part of its strategy to win over voters whose priority was to reject a party accused of law-breaking and sleaze.
Indeed, the circumstances behind both by-elections being triggered is also key to understanding these results. Wakefield’s former MP was sentenced to a term in prison for a serious offence, while Tiverton and Honiton’s MP was forced to resign over a scandal in the House of Commons. Together with reports of law-breaking in No. 10 and ongoing misconduct, there was a joined-up sense of discontent with how Johnson has handled, and responded to, multiple allegations of sleaze.
The Prime Minister still has the support of his cabinet, for now, but the resignation of the Conservative Party Co-Chairman, Oliver Dowden, means that since yesterday he has lost even more support among his parliamentary colleagues; something Johnson can ill-afford. For Johnson to regain support and confidence among the electorate, his government needs to move beyond big announcements that benefit few, such as the recent decision to allow recipients of Universal Credit to take out a mortgage, and put forward long-term policies to create tangible opportunities for levelling up and tackles the spiralling cost of living crisis. So far, this government has shown itself to be reactive in its policies, not proactive, such as having to revisit many of the announcements made at the Spring Statement to address rising energy costs (which Redwood predicted, see here).
Following the results of the by-elections, Johnson may well be on his last chance to improve the government’s handling of the economy and of Brexit; successfully doing so may give the Conservatives an opportunity to turn over a new leaf.