By-elections often trigger a minor political explosion but before very long the noise subsides. What happened in the early hours of this morning is different. There were three significant eruptions before most voters had woken up. The noise is about to get louder.
The least seismic development was Labour’s gain in Wakefield. In mid-term, an opposition party would expect to win such a seat. But even this win makes bigger waves than might have been the case in different circumstances. Boris Johnson’s great distinctive pitch as a leader of the Conservative party has been his appeal in the so called Red Wall. Most Tory MPs know he is a chaotic figure and is, in many ways, unsuited for government. However, some still dared to hope that only he could keep together the contradictory coalition of support that won them a near landslide in December 2019. There is vivid evidence that he is becoming an electoral liability even in those seats that turned to him at the general election. Let us not forget the Conservatives gained Hartlepool in a by-election a year ago, largely because of Johnson’s appeal. His fall as an electoral asset has been speedy.
Losing Wakefield is made much worse by the outcome in Tiverton. The swing to the Liberal Democrats shows that the Conservatives could face their ultimate nightmare, losing to Labour in some parts of the country and to Ed Davey’s party elsewhere. This was a seat the Conservatives held even in the 1997 general election, when Tony Blair won a landslide.
The third development is the most significant. The resignation of the Conservative chairman, Oliver Dowden, breaks the spell that Johnson is in full command of his government even if many of his backbenchers had no confidence in him. It was when the cabinet turned against Margaret Thatcher in 1990 that she fell. In his own way, Dowden’s resignation letter was scathing not least given he backed Johnson in the Conservative leadership contest and had been devotedly loyal since.
What happens next? Having spoken to some Conservative MPs this morning, I sense the mood is even more febrile than in the build up to the vote of confidence in Johnson earlier this month. Some are wondering if other cabinet ministers might resign. As I write, there is no indication of that. They had the chance to act when that vote of confidence took place and they opted to stay. Dowden did not consult cabinet colleagues. He acted alone.
For sure Johnson will seek to stay in Number 10. He is not going voluntarily. I am told he has convinced himself that he has a personal mandate from the 2019 election, and nothing can override the voters’ endorsement of him then, at least until he calls the next general election.
In theory there can be no vote of confidence in Johnson for another year, but that rule can be revised. The chairman of the 1922 committee, Sir Graham Brady, though not a great fan of Johnson, is extremely reluctant to bring in rule changes. It will take a new development to bring about another vote of confidence in the coming weeks or months, more cabinet resignations or Tory MPs who voted for Johnson in the vote of confidence now saying publicly he must go. But look out for elections to the 1922 executive to be held before the summer recess. Almost certainly the balance will move towards Johnson’s critics within the parliamentary party.
The by-elections have intensified the storm over Johnson’s leadership when there are many more mountainous challenges to come this summer and autumn, most specifically the cost-of-living crisis and the related industrial action. Crises tend to feed on themselves. Capable of fleeting introspective melancholy, Johnson will wonder whether the strategy of seeking new Brexit style divisions is working. Some in Number 10 had hoped that the strikes, the new Rwanda policy for asylum seekers, and further battles with the EU over Northern Ireland would help them at least win the Tiverton by-election. These policies did not do the trick. Others in Number Ten have had their doubts about this provocative strategy. Their doubts will be reinforced and internal tensions within Johnson’s team are inevitable amid political and economic crises.
I would also follow closely Johnson’s relationship with Rishi Sunak in the build up to the autumn budget. They do not get on. The differences are not just ideological, though Sunak’s “fiscal conservatism” clashes often with Johnson’s big spending instincts. They are also incomparably different personalities. Sunak is diligent and methodical. Johnson is erratic and disorderly. The contrast infuriates Sunak. Relations between Prime Ministers and Chancellors are often tense but can be managed when a leader is strong, which Johnson is not.
But critical Tory MPs I have spoken to are still unsure what to do next. There is no easy route to remove a Prime Minister who is determined to stay. They hope cabinet ministers make a move in the coming weeks or months. Let us see.
By-elections are not a wholly reliable guide as to what might happen at a general election, not least when it is possible that the Conservatives will have a new leader by then. But a hung parliament seems a likely option, in which case a minority Labour government will almost certainly be formed. The other parties, including the SNP, would not keep a Conservative government in power for a fifth term. In the meantime, Keir Starmer expects to get the verdict from Durham police within days. This will be a volatile summer and autumn.