In their former guise as non-Democrats, the Liberals once presided over one of the most celebrated results in by-election history – and it happened exactly 60 years ago, when Eric Lubbock overturned a Tory majority of 14,760 in Orpington and transformed a safe Conservative seat into a 7,855 majority for the Liberal Party. The Tories had been in government for 11 years at that point, yet had already acquired the weary detachment from the electorate that is often a by-product of a decade in office; the familiar whiff of a sex scandal that can accompany such tired longevity was just round the corner, though in 1962 the name John Profumo had yet to become a household one; ditto Christine Keeler. Last night in Tiverton and Honiton, it would appear history was going through one of its routine habits of repeating itself as the Lib Dems inflicted one of the most comprehensive and humiliating defeats on the Conservative Party ever seen at a by-election as former Army Major Richard Foord triumphed over the Tory candidate, wiping out a majority of 24,239 in a seat that had never been free from Conservative hands since its creation. And the by-election only happened because the sitting Tory MP Neil Parish was forced to quit after he’d been outed for watching porn on his phone in the Commons.
On the same night a second Tory seat fell, this time to Labour; Wakefield, one of the ‘Red Wall’ constituencies captured by the Conservatives in 2019, returned to its traditional home. This by-election was also provoked by a resignation connected to a sex scandal; fittingly, the last time a government suffered simultaneous defeat in two by-elections was during the John Major era, which was also the last time such a sleazy collection of reprehensible individuals constituted the ruling Party. Even by past standards of sleaze, however, the case of Imran Ahmad Khan is especially unpleasant; Khan was found guilty of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy, though he didn’t resign his seat until convicted. He’ll be spending the next 18 months being detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Considering Wakefield voted Leave in 2016 (as did Tiverton and Honiton in its Mid Devon guise), it was no great surprise its voters spurned Remoaner Labour in 2019; yet a Tory reverting to type is perhaps as predictable an outcome as last night’s results, and Wakefield turned red again whilst Tiverton and Honiton turned orange for the first time.
According to some sources, the Tory defeat in Tiverton and Honiton is officially the largest majority ever to be overturned at a British by-election, one that even exceeds the Lib Dems’ huge victory in North Shropshire last year. However, only the most gormlessly deluded Tory wouldn’t have seen this coming; most Conservative MPs returning to the Shires during the extended Jubilee Bank Holiday were confronted by angry constituents who’d had enough of the leadership, yet only 148 acted on their constituents’ behalf by registering their dissatisfaction with Boris in the confidence vote a couple of weeks ago. With a majority of Tories deciding to keep the PM in a job, it was left to the Lib Dem’s victorious candidate to say out loud what the 148 who voted against Boris declined to. He declared the voters of Tiverton and Honiton had spoken for the whole country by sending out a clear message. ‘It’s time for Boris Johnson to go – and go now,’ said Major Foord. ‘Every day Boris Johnson clings to office, he brings further shame, chaos and neglect. Communities like ours are on their knees. I also have a simple message for those Conservative MPs propping up this failing Prime Minister: the Liberal Democrats are coming.’
Okay, so there’s a slight element of ‘go back to your constituencies and prepare for government’ about that last statement, though in the thick of Lib Dem euphoria, it was probably understandable. This was one hell of a blow inflicted on a sitting administration, with the even-more predictable defeat in Wakefield the icing on the cake. The Liberal Democrats under the leadership of Ed Davey have been fortunate that the far-from enthusiastic response to Keir Starmer’s lacklustre Labour Party has enabled them to reinvent themselves yet again, emerging from the disastrous shadows of Jo Swinson’s Remain crusade and capitalising on widespread disillusionment with the two main Parties; it’s precisely what the Lib Dems did so well under Charles Kennedy, and when the alternatives are as uninspiring as Boris and Sir Keir – not to mention the motley crews assembled on the respective front benches of the pair – it’s no wonder the tide has turned for the Lib Dems again. Considering the likes of Dominic Raab and Michael Gove have smaller leads over the Lib Dems than that which the Tories had boasted in Tiverton and Honiton until last night, perhaps the new Lib Dem MP’s melodramatic warning should be heeded after all.
Boris had wisely kept a low profile during the by-election campaigns in the two constituencies; as with the increasingly-unpopular Ted Heath during the October 1974 General Election, the Prime Minister was noticeably absent from the promotional literature delivered by the hapless footsloggers trying in vain to court votes on behalf of their doomed candidate and attempting not to mention the Party leader on the doorstep. A not-dissimilar policy was tried by Labour canvassers in 2019, as I found out when I made my feelings on Corbyn and his cronies clear when confronted by one at the time. Anyway, Boris wasn’t at home to make excuses; at the moment, he’s in Rwanda, officially to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government shindig, but it’s possible he might be checking out the Kigali B&Bs earmarked for those pesky illegal immigrants. In his absence, the Conservative Party co-chairman Oliver Dowden became the latest Tory to walk a plank Boris refuses to countenance even exists.
Dowden’s resignation is the most high-profile response to two heavy defeats irrefutably linked to the ongoing fallout from Partygate. ‘We cannot continue with business as usual,’ wrote Dowden in his letter, though the PM is unlikely to receive that statement as advice. On the eve of an anticipated wipe-out at the two by-elections, Boris simply said ‘Governing parties generally do not win by-elections, particularly not in mid-term.’ Not the most encouraging message to the troops, but at least one rooted in realism; the Tories were seemingly prepared for defeat, if not what turned out to be the scale of defeat in Tiverton and Honiton. The Wakefield loss was no more of a surprise than the other seat, though tactical voting at Tiverton and Honiton saw Labour lose its deposit. There was also pre-by-election unrest at Wakefield’s Labour constituency branch when the entire committee resigned in protest at their preferred candidate, trade unionist Kate Dearden, being excluded in favour of a candidate parachuted in by the NEC; not that Keir Starmer will be bringing that up as he attempts to bask in the glow of his winner, Simon Lightwood.
When one considers the Labour and Lib Dem perspectives on Brexit, they’ll no doubt adopt a ‘don’t mention the war’ attitude now that two Leave constituencies are in their hands; even without the Partygate revelations, it’s possible the promise to ‘get Brexit done’ that enabled the Tories to triumph in the two seats in 2019 was regarded by voters in Wakefield and Tiverton as a done deal in 2022 and it was time to move on to other pressing issues, such as the cost of living; maybe they figured the Tories couldn’t deliver on that, considering the Tories’ policies in the pandemic provoked it. But it’s hard to escape the undeniable influence of what Boris and his cohorts got up to during the most testing period for the public in post-war British history when it comes to this pair of results. Let’s face it, though, Boris Johnson is a very lucky Prime Minister; he doesn’t have to call another General Election until 2024.
© The Editor