By-election defeats in Tiverton and Honiton and Wakefield will have shaken some Conservative MPs. If he survives until next year, Boris Johnson will need credible local election results.

First published: June 2022.

The scale of by-election defeats in Tiverton and Honiton in south-west England and Wakefield in the north of England might have Conservative rebels wishing they had waited a few weeks to hold a no-confidence vote in Boris Johnson. For the 148 MPs who voted against him, these results might have swayed just enough of their colleagues to join them in toppling the prime minister.

Even Johnson loyalists might feel nervous for the future following these results. Only 72 constituencies in the UK were supposedly safer for the Tories than Tiverton and Honiton, where the Conservatives held a 24,000 majority and won 60% of the vote in the election of 2019. Yet the Liberal Democrats romped home on a monster swing of 30%, replacing Conservative MP Neil Parish, who resigned after admitting to watching porn in the House of Commons.

This was the Lib Dems’ third successive crushing of Johnson’s party, following by-elections in Chesham and Amersham in south-east England and North Shropshire in the West Midlands. The party now appears poised to take other rural and southern seats in the next election.

Meanwhile, the new blue wall of northern constituencies taken from Labour in 2019 is already crumbling. Labour has taken Wakefield back from the Conservatives after Tory MP Imran Khan was jailed for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy. Many blue wall seats require only small swings to return to Labour. The 12.7% swing which turned Wakefield back to red was more than three times the 3.8% required, indicating the fragility of the majority constructed by Johnson’s Conservatives in their remarkable 2019 election triumph.

In Wakefield, the Conservative share fell by 17.3%, while in Tiverton and Honiton it collapsed by 21.8% – results that may give Labour hope for the next election.

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What’s next for Johnson?

In the immediate aftermath of these two by-election results, Oliver Dowden, the chairman of the Conservative party, resigned, saying “somebody must take responsibility”.

Johnson has perhaps one last chance to re-establish himself as the electoral asset which, combined with his championing of Brexit, is what propelled him to leadership in the first place. The party is losing its confidence in Johnson, as the recent confidence vote suggests, but his huge general election win in 2019 has been evidence enough to keep him around.

“A further blow to Johnson’s reputation as an election winner.”

Last week’s result is a further blow to Johnson’s reputation as an election winner. The loss of shire counties – Conservative strongholds – at next year’s local elections would be even more painful and surely spell the end – even for a leader well versed in riding his luck.

Johnson’s MPs are acutely aware that they are friendless in parliament (with the arguable exception of Northern Ireland’s DUP members). While other political parties could fight an election aiming to establish a coalition, a Conservative leader needs an overall majority. Winning outright now looks like a mighty challenge – not least for a party which will be asking the electorate to extend its period in office to nearly 20 years.

The Conservatives can fairly argue that the swing against them in Wakefield was not spectacular by by-election standards. But up north, these days, only modest shifts will return a swath of northern seats to Labour.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats suffered a net loss of seats at the last election, but still increased their share of the vote in 574 of the 611 constituencies the party contested. The party now lies second in 88 seats, of which 80 are Conservative-held. Johnson may be a lucky general – but he has never fought on so many fronts – and at the moment he is losing.

Lessons from history

By-elections are too often discounted as temporary froth. This is foolish. The demise of Margaret Thatcher, the last Conservative leader to win an outright majority at more than one election, is attributed to Europe, the poll tax and Cabinet hostility. But three crushing by-election defeats just a month before the fatal leadership challenge against her should not be underestimated.

John Major’s 1992 triumph was followed by regular by-election disasters. The Conservatives lost all eight seats it defended in by-elections in the following parliament, including one just three months before being roundly defeated by Labour in the 1997 general election.

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Tony Blair’s by-election successes provided a surefire indication that New Labour would be comfortably reelected. Blair was the by-election king, with Labour never losing a contest for one of its seats to the Conservatives under his stewardship. Thirteen seats were successfully defended, the only two reverses being to the Liberal Democrats. Things deteriorated and we knew Labour was heading out of power when the party, under Gordon Brown, lost by-elections in Crewe and Nantwich (2008) and Norwich North (2009) on 18% and 17% swings respectively.

After a mid-term parliamentary gain (Hartlepool from Labour last year), Johnson now has a poor by-election record. Two seats have been held, but one of those was uncontested by the other main parties – all four other contests have been lost.

As party leader, Johnson desperately needs an improvement in opinion poll ratings, and these losses don’t help. If he survives until next year, he will need credible local election results if there is to be any confidence in him taking the Conservatives into the next election.

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Professor Jonathan Tonge, Professor of Politics, Department of Politics, University of Liverpool.

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