On 9 June 2023, Nadine Dorries announced that she was standing down from her Mid Bedfordshire seat “with immediate effect”. In the end, it took a further 78 days for the former culture secretary and Boris Johnson loyalist to make good on her word, extending her boycott of the House of Commons chamber to 414 days in the interim.
Then, on 11 September, Chris Pincher lost his appeal against an eight-week suspension for an “egregious case of sexual misconduct”.
These are the brutal realities set the scene for a brace of by-elections in Mid-Bedfordshire and Tamworth, both Conservative heartlands, on Thursday. With Halloween still two weeks away, Pincher and Dorries are the spectres that haunt the Conservatives’ prospects in these supposedly safe seats.
Or that, at least, is the reading advanced by a leaked Conservative memo, obtained by Sky News yesterday.
The internal party document pins blame for potential further by-election routings on “enormous discontent” directed from the doorstep at Nadine Dorries and Chris Pincher in Mid Bedfordshire and Tamworth respectively.
“We’ve always known the cause of these by-elections”, the memo reads, “i.e. MPs associated with our party’s challenges last year standing down who are personally associated with negative news stories, would hinder our performance”.
However, the memo has raised eyebrows for its commentary in other areas. It seems to soothe intra-party discontent by suggesting aggrieved former Conservative voters in Mid Beds and Tamworth are becoming “don’t knows” rather than flocking to the Liberal Democrat or Labour parties. “To date, there are very few direct switchers from GE19 Conservative to opponents. This is in line with recent by-elections”, it explains.
“Favourability ratings for Keir Starmer are relatively low”, the memo assures elsewhere. The internal document stresses that voters like the local Conservative candidates as well as the prime minister, before ultimately concluding that “two sizeable Labour victories are to be expected”.
Cynics have responded to the memo’s appearance in the media by suggesting it is an example of sly expectation management from CCHQ. Indeed, other indicators suggest the races in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire, but the latter in particular, are tight. One poll for Mid Bedfordshire, commissioned by the Starmer-aligned think tank Labour Together but carried out by the independent pollsters Survation last month, put Labour and the Conservatives neck and neck on 29 per cent, with the Lib Dems on 22 per cent.
While Labour is increasingly presumed to triumph in Tamworth, therefore, in Mid Bedfordshire the bookmakers now narrowly favour the Conservatives. This is because the race in Nadine Dorries’ old constituency is complicated by Labour and Liberal Democrat electoral competition — with the two opposition parties facing off in an acrimonious contest to emerge as the natural receptacle for voters’ harbouring newfound anti-Conservative sentiments. The 19 per cent swing Labour needs to win Mid Beds, although less than the 24 per cent swing it achieved in Selby, may hence prove difficult to muster.
In this way, the leaked memo probably speaks to a narrative being spun in CCHQ — with party officials undertaking to blame external factors for a brace of losses, while preparing the ground for spinners to embellish the PM’s own electoral credentials in a more positive outcome.
The memo, genuine or contrived, is also revealing in other aspects. Because it gets to the core of Sunak’s electoral-political dilemma: how does he improve the Conservative party’s prospects, which are shaped by the legacies two unpopular forebears, while maintaining the visage of unity among his parliamentary party? “Long Johnson” is endemic in both Mid Bedfordshire and Tamworth it seems, not just Westminster.
This is noteworthy because the memo follows the prime minister’s attempt to undertake a hard relaunch of his premiership at Conservative Party conference — resting on the rhetorical gambit that the PM is the man to upend a stale “30 year political consensus”.
The “30 year political consensus” shtick was supposed to square the circle of Sunak’s electoral-political dilemma — in one breath castigating, if implicitly, his immediate predecessors while attempting to unite his party around a shared goal. But the immediate post-conference polls suggested the approach was not an immediate hit with at least one of his audiences: the electorate. Despite all the coverage of Sunak and his party, an Opinium poll conducted for the Observer showed the Conservatives’ polling unchanged on 29 per cent.
If Sunak does, as the memo intimates, lose both the Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire seats to Labour, Sir Keir Starmer’s spin machine will be working overtime in a bid to tie Sunak’s popularity directly with the results. Conversely, Conservative spinners will stick to the script outlined in the memo: they will suggest that while while Sunak is popular in the public, the political tides could not be held back in Dorries and Pincher’s former seats. Mid-term by-elections are difficult for governing parties, in any case, the narrative will flow.
But, if the Conservative party holds onto even one of these seats, the pro-Sunak spin will insist he is, in fact, moving the dial among the electorate in scenes which will essentially mirror the muted merriment after the Uxbridge by-election. A thin margin of victory will probably be leveraged into an important marker of success for Sunak — even if the Conservatives hold on to Mid Beds because of a statistical freak in the division of opposition votes.
The by-election in Tamworth also has an intriguing historical parallel which bodes ominously for the government. Before 1997, this area of the country was represented by the constituency of South East Staffordshire and, in April 1996, a by-election took place in South East Staffordshire roughly one year ahead of the general election. Then, as now, the Conservatives went into the contest defending a large majority — but Labour gained the seat on a huge swing of 22.1 percentage points.
In this way, for Labour, two Conservative defeats will give the party more opportunity to attack the government — and the press gallery more chance to write up those attacks.
After winning the recent by-election in Rutherglen and Hamilton West, Keir Starmer can show he is advancing in all “Walls” — Tartan, Blue and Red. Indeed, a “Red Wall” by-election may be just around the corner, with the MP for the marginal Blackpool South under investigation for alleged paid lobbying.
Then there is the matter of Wellingborough, which voted Labour at the 1997 and 2001 elections and could soon be the setting for a further by-election after Peter Bone’s recommended suspension of six weeks was upheld by the parliamentary commissioner for standards.
The big risk here for Sunak, therefore, is that his party enters an electoral doom loop with political chicanery and spin used to shield the Conservative Party from reality as his MP numbers are shaved by a series of by-elections. Perception is important in politics, and Sunak needs to shake his reputation as a “loser”.
Ultimately, two defeats on Friday morning will strengthen the feeling of fin de régime which presently envelops Sunak’s government and raise questions about how significantly the PM can alter his party’s electoral prospects before a general election.
One possible outcome of two Conservative losses on Friday morning, in this way, will be that the likelihood of a late election, perhaps in the winter of 2024 or even January 2025, increases.
Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.
Politics.co.uk is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our daily newsletter here.