Sleaford byelection: Caroline Johnson holds seat for Conservatives

Doctor wins ahead of Ukip as turnout plummets and George Osborne calls Labour’s showing ‘not good for democracy’

The Conservatives have held the seat of Sleaford and North Hykeham in Lincolnshire in a byelection triggered by the resignation of Stephen Phillips over “irreconcilable policy differences” with Theresa May.

Caroline Johnson, a children’s doctor and local Conservative, won the seat with 17,570 votes. Ukip’s Victoria Ayling came second with 4,426.

The Conservatives had been widely expected to keep the long-held seat but in an embarrassment to Labour the party was beaten into fourth place by Ukip and the Liberal Democrats.

The former chancellor George Osborne tweeted that Labour’s performance was “not good for democracy”.

The disintegration of the Labour Party is not good for democracy. Oppositions are meant to try to win by-elections, not slip from 2nd to 4th

— George Osborne (@George_Osborne) December 9, 2016

Turnout was only 37%, remarkably low even for a byelection.

Labour slipped from second place at the 2015 general election to receive 3,363 votes, 10.2% of the total, down from 17.3%. The Lib Dems received 3,606 votes, 11% of the total, up from 5.7%.

Ukip, which had been hoping to do well in an area that voted heavily to leave the European Union in the referendum, saw its share slip by more than two percentage points, to 13.5%.

Results graphic

Ukip’s Ayling had accused the Conservatives of being “Brexit backsliders” and Labour’s candidate of having wanted to stay in the EU.

Ukip’s new leader, Paul Nuttall, claimed the party’s byelection was a “good, solid result”. Speaking to BBC News from North Hykeham, he said: “If somebody had said to me at the beginning of this campaign that we would have finished second, I would have bitten their hands off. Ukip has been in the middle of a leadership campaign. We have looked pretty shambolic over the summer and into the autumn.”

He claimed the British electorate would “turn to Ukip in their droves” when it became clearer that the government plans to keep Britain in the European single market.

He said: “The future of this party is very bright indeed. If the Conservative party tries to keep us in the single market, that is a betrayal of that vote on 23 June and British people will turn to Ukip.

“Not only do we have great opportunities in Conservative areas, but in Labour areas too where you have a Labour leader who isn’t connecting with working-class people.”

Nuttall said he was considering standing in the byelection that is set to take place in Leigh next year when the Labour MP Andy Burnham stands down to campaign to become the mayor of Manchester.

He said: “There may well be a byelection in Greater Manchester next year. I’ll give it serious consideration as to whether I will stand in it. It is important that we get more Ukip MPs because we want to ensure that we hold the government’s feet to the fire.”

Nuttall who was elected to replace Nigel Farage as leader last week, said: “Ukip’s membership has gone up for the first time in about a year, our poll ratings are up as well, we are now just finished second in a byelection. I’m pretty happy with my first week’s work.”

In her victory speech in the early hours of Friday, Johnson said she wanted to help the government meet its timetable for starting the process of leaving the EU.

She said: “I look forward to strengthening the government’s majority in parliament so Theresa May, our prime minister, can get on with the job of triggering article 50, leaving the European Union and building a country and economy that works for everyone.”

The Sleaford result underlines May’s poll lead and Labour’s poor showing in English rural areas, despite a hard-fought campaign on the NHS by the Labour candidate, Jim Clarke. When the seat was created in 1997 the Tories had a majority of just 5,000 over Labour, but that ballooned to make Sleaford one of the safest Conservative seats in the country.

The Liberal Democrat candidate, Ross Pepper, was the only contender in favour of staying in the EU, in a constituency where 40% backed remain in June’s referendum.

However, there was to be no repeat of the shock byelection result at Richmond Park in south-west London last Thursday, in which the pro-remain Lib Dems unseated the pro-leave former Tory MP Zac Goldsmith.

The Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron, claimed the result showed his party was “back as an electoral force” in areas that voted leave as well as those that backed remain.

The senior Labour MP Vernon Coaker said: “Clearly for us, this was not the result we might have hoped for. It was a difficult seat. Let’s remember this is a safe Tory seat. Ukip came here expecting to do much better than they did so it’s a bad result for them.”

He admitted the focus on the EU had damaged his party’s chances. “The challenge for us was because of Brexit. Everything was about Brexit. The messages about the A&E, the NHS, the messages about infrastructure, all of that got lost to an extent in the swirl around Brexit.”


Rowena Mason Deputy political editor and Matthew Weaver

The GuardianTramp

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