WA Senior Adviser, broadcaster and journalist, Steve Richards and WA’s Head of Corporate Communications, Lee Findell, unpacked the triple by-election and assessed the implications of the results and what they mean for political parties on the first day of Summer Recess. Even though the temperatures outside will remain cool, something tells us this will be a heated summer break for political parties.
This morning’s conversation is the latest in a series of discussions with senior political and media figures hosted by WA, and we have outlined some key takeaways from the discussion below:
Immediate by-election implications
The results from Selby and Ainsty are an extraordinary win for Labour, marking the biggest swing since March 1990 at the Mid Staffordshire by-election, when Labour overturned a Tory majority of 14,654. They also reveal that rural areas and farming communities have become increasingly disillusioned in the Conservative Government and serve as an indication of what might happen on a national level – especially in the North of England – at the next General Election. Perhaps more worryingly for the party in power is the Liberal Democrat win in Somerton and Frome. Despite the Conservative Chair Greg Hands saying that Labour has lost its deposit during his morning round, Liberal Democrats picking up Conservative seats signals that tactical voting is back.
The results in Boris Johnson’s former seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip on the other hand meant that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak did not awake to headlines which would have triggered immediate discontent and trouble in his Party. Sunak was given a protective shield – but it may be a deceptive one given the by-election in Uxbridge is characterised as a single-issue campaign. That issue being Labour’s own London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s creation – ULEZ.
Instead of euphoria, today the top of the Labour Party is feeling something more similar to anger. Anger towards its green ‘champions’, Sadiq Khan and Ed Miliband who have allowed the green agenda to bypass the immediacy of Labour’s cost-of-living platform. The results in Uxbridge have two big implications for the Labour Party. Firstly, Starmer will now face a lot of pressure to evaluate Labour’s green agenda to make sure there is nothing within it that the Conservative party can seize like the ULEZ charge. We have already seen two events that challenge that proposition, one being Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves pulling back on the £28 billion and the second being the back and forth on stopping all exploration in the North Sea which undermined and put at risk Scottish Labour who cannot go into the September by-election on a job losing platform. Secondly, the Uxbridge by-election highlights the fundamental contradiction in Labour Party policy of taking back control and transferring power to local communities – something Keir Starmer championed at the beginning of the year. Shadow Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Lisa Nandy described this as a historic transfer of power, and at the time this meant that moving forward the focus needed to be switched from central government to local authorities. The reaction to the Uxbridge by-election, and the ULEZ policy blame-game raises questions of who will be in control under a Labour government – the centre or the local. It also appears as though Labour’s over-cautious approach made the Party vulnerable to single-issues campaigns, and without an overriding purpose and mission to fall back on as the alternative, the top of the Party will be engaging in heated debates over the summer and leading up to conference on how best to tackle this gap.
Sunak’s glimmer of hope?
The Prime Minister can breathe a (very small) sigh of relief as instead of an unequivocal media onslaught, voices will once again emerge claiming Sunak may after all have a narrow path to victory. Going back to the ULEZ issue, the PM might also face pressures to water down the Government’s climate propositions in attempting to stay in the good graces of motorists. However, this will not be an easy electoral calculation to make. The PM is also likely to undertake a cabinet reshuffle, cementing teams that will lead the Government into the next General Election. This is because Sunak must at least try to convey a real sense of moving on and change. What the nature and size of that reshuffle will be is difficult to determine. Chances of Sunak sacking Chancellor Hunt – low, Braverman – risky, Barclay – likely, Gove getting a promotion – 50/50. If the reshuffle does not happen by the end of today, it is highly unlikely it will happen next week. So we can expect the reshuffle and Sunak’s attempt at reemergence in the first week of September.
A strong reemergence from Sunak will be a challenge as many Conservative MPs consider the Prime Minister an electoral liability for the Party. Why? To start, Sunak has not managed to cut through the public and many wonder what his political purpose actually is. Also, despite having a formidable office in Downing Street, the Prime Minister has not succeeded in managing the Party and is not doing any better against his five priorities. What does this mean for business? In practical terms, from September onwards the focus will be entirely on the election. The legislative programme will be carried over in September when Parliament will sit for a few weeks before dispersing for party conferences. Upon return, there will be a King’s Speech targeted solely on winning an election, featuring no significant pieces of legislation. Then all eyes will turn to the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, followed by a cosy break for Christmas and then the Spring Budget which will be the last, and most important, fiscal event before the General Election.
And what about Starmer?
Albeit for different reasons, it is not much rosier in Starmer’s garden. Starmer’s reshuffle will likely come in September and will be a significant one. Rumours are Nick Thomas-Symonds, current Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade will end up in the Cabinet Office which would have interesting implications for Britain’s relationship with Europe. Angela Rayner might get the levelling-up brief, while Lisa Nandy could get demoted to Leader of the House. And what to do to about Ed? It is likely Miliband will keep his post given his and Starmer’s close relationship, and the fact that Miliband helped Starmer get elected. However, following Uxbridge businesses will have to carefully frame the dialogue around green policies and Net Zero with the Labour Party. While Labour’s overarching climate change commitment is unlikely to change, the Party will scrap anything that is remotely equivalent to ULEZ in a way that it takes away focus from the cost-of-living crisis, or worse, adds to the financial burden of voters. Starmer will look at every policy area from an electoral perspective, i.e., winning at the next General Election. A different challenge for businesses will be trying to delve deep to work out the gap between the surface narrative from Starmer and Reeves leading up to the election and what Labour will do in power.
The race is on for third place in Parliament
By-election results have also shown that after a troublesome few years, the Liberal Democrats are back as a significant political force. Depending on what happens in Scotland, including the by-election in September and the investigation into Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP leadership, the Liberal Democrats have a real chance of becoming the third force in Parliament. Starmer does not want to form a coalition Government with the Liberal Democrats, nor does he possess the necessary political skill to navigate the challenges that come with it. This may be why Labour are in Scotland every weekend.
General Election speculation
Despite speculation that Sunak will try to go for an early election, this is highly unlikely. While he is behind in polls, Sunak will wait. So the General Election is still expected in October or November next year. But before that, a major event will the local elections in May, including the London mayoral election which will determine the whole pre-election mood and be treated as a great pre-election test.
Our key takeaway – businesses should prepare for a busy first week of September and after that for a political environment entirely engulfed in the next General Election.