By-elections: Another storm for the prime minister

CLA Senior Public Affairs Manager Eleanor Wood analyses the results of the two by-elections and what this means for the Conservative party and wider politics

It felt like the writing had been on the wall for the Conservative Party for some time regarding the results of the by-election in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton.

In Tiverton and Honiton, the Conservative’s previous 22,000 majority was seismically overturned by more than 6,000 votes and saw the Liberal Democrats claim the seat. It has also added to the growing number of questions about whether the prime minister still has control of the party.

Wakefield was always going to be shaky ground for the Conservatives - it was won with a wafer-thin majority in 2019, after being a Labour stronghold since 1932. Many commentators wrote off the Conservatives retaining the seat as soon as the by-election was announced. Typically, incumbent governments are tested at by-elections for a variety of reasons - either for local issues, such as the planning issues in Chesham and Amersham or for national issues, such as partygate with North Shropshire.

The loss of the seat in Tiverton and Honiton is different and on a larger scale - a percentage point swing of 29.9% made for uncomfortable reading for the Conservative party and led to the resignation of Party Chair Oliver Dowden. Those who are plotting against the prime minister will be closely watching how the rest of the cabinet reacts to the loss. The main threat would be if a senior member of the cabinet resigned and questioned Boris Johnson’s ability to continue to lead.

However, this appears unlikely, and it is currently just another storm for an already troubled prime minister to weather. It should be a warning, however that if the prime minister wanted to “push the nuclear button” and go the polls to shore up political support, it would be a mistake, with many rural areas looking to other parties for representation. The Conservative party has traditionally relied on the support of rural areas, but now some of these areas are starting to feel taken for granted.

The omission of rural areas from the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill was a sign of this - it is not just people who live in towns and cities who want to see increased opportunities and regeneration in their areas. Rural areas are 18% less productive than their urban counterparts - connectivity is inadequate, jobs pay less and homes are more unaffordable. That isn’t to say they are not fantastic place to live and work, but they also deserve equality in the opportunities that urban areas benefit from.

The CLA continues to lobby for increased emphasis on the rural economy, and we eagerly await the publication of the rural proofing report in July, which aims to report on how well the government is doing at making policies fit for rural areas.

Key contact:

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Eleanor Wood Senior Public Affairs Manager, London