Jason Groves: Rishi must find a way to revive flagging Tory moraleOctober 20, 2023
Unless Rishi can now find a way to revive flagging Tory morale, the party is doomed: analysis by Jason Groves
A cynic might think it was no surprise Rishi Sunak chose to be out of the country yesterday morning as Labour romped home in two of his party’s safest seats.
In reality, the timing of the Prime Minister’s visit to the Middle East was dictated by the calamitous events in the region rather than any domestic concerns.
But Tory HQ had been warning privately that Mr Sunak was unlikely to be required to make a victory dash to either Tamworth or Mid Bedfordshire. The scale of the defeats is not unprecedented – but it is close.
Labour claimed this morning that it had delivered a ‘political earthquake’. And even 3,000 miles away in Riyadh, it is hard to believe the PM was not disturbed by the tremors.
Tory chairman Greg Hands was quick to point out that governing parties tend to lose by-elections – and that those losses are not necessarily a good guide to the next general election. That is plainly true. But losses on this scale are hard to brush aside, and will add to the gloom enveloping the Tory Party.
ory HQ had been warning privately that Mr Sunak was unlikely to be required to make a victory dash to either Tamworth or Mid Bedfordshire
The timing of the Prime Minister’s visit to the Middle East was dictated by the calamitous events in the region rather than any domestic concerns (Pictured: s Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) meeting with Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak)
In Mid Bedfordshire, Labour overhauled a majority of almost 25,000, despite a strong showing from the Liberal Democrats who split the protest vote. In Tamworth, Labour produced the second biggest by-election victory in post-war history in what had been a heavily Leave-voting seat at the Brexit referendum.
READ MORE: The Prime Minister MUST return to tradition Conservative values after Labour wins by-elections in Mid Bedfordshire and Tamworth
Rishi Sunak was yesterday urged to cut taxes and return to traditional Tory values after stay-at-home Conservative voters handed Labour two devastating by-elections wins
Elections expert Professor Sir John Curtice said the only precedent for by-election wins on this scale was in the run-up to the 1997 election, adding: ‘And we all know how that ended.’
George Osborne cheerfully suggested the Tories were now on the road to ‘Armageddon’.
Tory strategists point out that both by-elections were triggered by the resignation of sitting Tory MPs in circumstances that provoked local anger. They also argue that the results were largely driven by former Tory voters staying at home. ‘The results didn’t tell us anything we didn’t know,’ said one senior Tory.
That is true. By-elections are an opportunity for disgruntled voters to send a message to the government of the day. At next year’s election, voters will have to decide whether they want to keep Mr Sunak in No 10 or replace him with Keir Starmer, who shows no sign yet of generating the type of voter enthusiasm that helped sweep Tony Blair to power in 1997.
But the scale of the swing last night suggests there is more at play than just the usual mid-term blues suffered by governing parties. If Labour can secure even half the swing it did yesterday at a general election then Sir Keir will win next year.
Tory MPs have consoled themselves until now that Sir Keir’s relative unpopularity might yet hand them a lifeline next year. But yesterday morning some were starting to fear he could get in by default if voters simply decide it is time for change.
There was certainly plenty for Mr Sunak to ponder as he flew back from the Middle East. The idea of going to the polls in May, which some Cabinet ministers have been flirting with, appears to be dead.
The performance of the pro-Brexit Reform party, whose votes totalled more than the Labour majority in both seats, is a significant concern. Boris Johnson’s success in heading off a similar threat from the Brexit Party was a key factor in the 2019 win.
There was certainly plenty for Mr Sunak to ponder as he flew back from the Middle East
There is no sign that Reform’s leader Richard Tice is ready to stand aside for the Conservatives
But there is no sign that Reform’s leader Richard Tice is ready to stand aside for the Conservatives. Mr Sunak also has to find a way to try to restore flagging Tory morale, without which his party will struggle to meet the challenges of the coming year.
Tory MPs were cheered by the flickers of boldness last month when he slowed the rush to net zero and closed down the HS2 money pit.
But by breakfast time yesterday he was already facing calls from the Tory Right to return to a traditional tax-cutting agenda, which he believes is impossible while inflation remains high. Government sources last night insisted that Mr Sunak would stick to his guns. But as he glanced at the clouds on his flight home yesterday, Mr Sunak might have struggled to spot a silver lining.
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