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Opinion- Big By-Elections Blow for Boris?

local elections

Today voters are headed to the polls in two by-elections that, depending on the outcome, could greatly undermine the Prime Minister’s authority.

The votes will be taking place in the constituencies of Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton, which were both Conservative seats before the two Conservative MPs were recently forced to resign.

The former MP for Wakefield, Imran Ahmad Khan was forced to resign after he was convicted of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy in 2008 and was jailed for 18 months.

Imran Ahmad Khan conviction triggers by-election
Imran Ahmad Khan was convicted for sexual assault earlier this year

The Tiverton and Honiton MP was Neil Parish who resigned after admitting that he had watched pornography on his phone twice while in the House of Commons Chamber.

Neil Parish resigns triggering by-election
Neil Parish resigns after watching pornography in the House of Commons

With the voting taking place today (Thursday 23 June), results are expected in the early hours of Friday morning.

June By-elections: What can we expect?

The constituency of Wakefield had been a Labour seat since 1932, however in 2019 the Conservatives won this seat after the area voted Leave in the 2016 EU referendum. This was part of the fall of Labour’s ‘Red Wall’, which won for the Conservatives a large majority.

Tiverton and Honiton on the other hand is a decidedly ‘True Blue’ constituency. In 2019, the Conservatives won this seat with a majority of 24,239.

However, things have changed significantly since 2019, and, as was the case with the recent local elections, these by-elections are being viewed by many as a referendum on the leadership of Boris Johnson. This is particularly troubling for the Prime Minister given recent polling.

In Wakefield, Labour are significantly ahead, and poised to reclaim the seat. Labour candidate Simon Lightwood is projected to defeat Tory candidate Nadeem Ahmed by approximately 20 points.

The picture in Tiverton and Honiton is much tighter, however. The Liberal Democrats are expected to make significant gains on the Conservatives. The only question is whether they will be significant enough to turn the constituency yellow. Unfortunately there has been no recent polling conducted in Tiverton and Honiton but expectations are for it to be neck and neck.

While it is likely to be very close, the Liberal Democrats will likely be feeling confident after their wins in Chesham and Amersham a year ago and in North Shropshire in December.

By-By Boris?

For Boris Johnson, today’s by-elections have the potential to be very bad indeed. A central argument of the Prime Minister’s defenders in the recent vote of confidence is that he is a proven political winner, unlike anything else the Conservative party has to offer. And certainly, this is not untrue.

However, these by-elections are a litmus test of the extent to which this remains the case in the wake of “Partygate” and the Government’s handling of the cost of living crisis. If the Conservatives were to lose in both Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton, then many members of the party may start to wonder whether he is still an electoral asset rather than an electoral liability.

This would present a significant problem for the Prime Minister. Many Tory MPs in former ‘Red Wall’ seats will have been anxiously glancing at the polling for Wakefield in particular and wondering whether they will suffer a similar fate in the 2024 general election if Boris Johnson remains the leader of the party. Though under current party rules the Prime Minister cannot face another vote of confidence for a year, there has been speculation that the rules could be changed to allow another vote sooner.

Likewise, as the Liberal Democrats continue their electoral march in the South West, a victory in Tiverton and Honiton would completely change many campaigners view of what may be possible. What other (formerly) safe Tory seats might be up for grabs in 2024?

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