Last week’s confidence vote showed that Boris Johnson still has the support of his backbenchers – just. But on Thursday, the prime minister will face two critical tests by the voters who really matter: the British public.
A pair of byelections, one in Wakefield and the other in Tiverton and Honiton, will help wavering MPs answer the question of how toxic their beleagured leader has become with the electorate.
“It’s a really interesting coincidence of the calendar that we’ve ended up with these two byelections on the same day, because the key to Johnson’s victory in 2019 was his ability to win over these more socially conservative, leave-oriented voters in the ‘red wall’ while retaining traditional Conservative support in the south of England ... What the result next week may well point to is that neither half of that works any more,” says Robert Ford, professor of political science at the University of Manchester.
The Conservative party HQ is strongly playing down the party’s hopes – losing both seats has almost become the expectation in Westminster.
But election experts say losing the Devon seat of Tiverton and Honiton, where the Conservatives had a 24,239 majority just two and a half years ago, would be an extraordinary moment.
“If they lost both, that would really be a huge thing, because of Tiverton and Honiton. That’s a massive overturn,” said Stephen Fisher, professor of political sociology at the University of Oxford.
“The seat has only existed since 1997. It was a close-run thing between the Liberal Democrats and the Tories in 1997, but it’s basically always been Conservative … Last time it was 60% for the Conservatives and just 15% for the Liberal Democrats. It would be an enormous swing – and that’s in a seat that voted 58% leave.”
Even a narrow win by the Conservatives in this true blue, rural seat should represent a shock, and could unsettle many Tories who had previously considered themselves safe.
The swing required for Labour to take Wakefield is smaller at 3.75% – much less than the move in the national polls since the 2019 general election.
But Fisher says even a 3.5% swing to Labour, if replicated nationwide, would be good news for Keir Starmer. “If Labour win the Wakefield byelection, that suggests they are at least on course to be the largest party at the next election,” he said.
The result will certainly be closely monitored in Labour’s HQ. Starmer’s team have sought to calm shadow cabinet jitters about his personal performance in recent days, arguing that they have a clear strategy to win back swing voters in target seats.
A solid victory in Wakefield on Thursday would encourage them to stick to that approach, guided by data analysis rather than short-term political pressures.
Many of the former Labour seats Johnson won in the “get Brexit done” election of 2019 are held by Conservatives with small majorities. If replicated nationwide, a swing of 3.75% could see about 35 Tory MPs swept aside – though that could be mitigated slightly if looming boundary changes are implemented.
If the swing is bigger, it could prompt jitters among a much larger group of Tory MPs, some of whom may not have thought of themselves as at risk before.
That may help explain the fact that Tories are throwing everything at next week’s races. Activists on the ground in both seats say the Conservative campaigns appear better resourced and organised than recent contests, such as the North Shropshire byelection last December where the Lib Dems scored a surprise victory after the resignation of Owen Paterson.
Cabinet ministers have hit both constituencies in earnest in recent weeks.
Johnson’s allies have their script ready for Friday morning. They will argue a byelection is a “free hit” for voters who are not choosing a government, and the outcome would be different at a general election.
They will also say that the kind of tacit pact around the byelections – with Labour focusing on Wakefield and soft-pedalling in Tiverton, and the Lib Dems doing the opposite – would be harder to pull off nationwide.
“It’s a free hit,” said a party source. “It’s not going to change the government. What you’re seeing is, the Lib Dems have shed the toxicity of the coalition days so they’re now a legitimate protest party.”
But whatever the spin, a bad night for the Tories will throw the focus back on to Johnson, and the effect of the Partygate scandal on voters’ perceptions of him and his party.
Ford says that while the prime minister appears unlikely to be moved by even disastrous results, his MPs should take heed. “It is my firm view that trust in politicians and positive images of politicians never come back. It’s asymmetric. If you lose it, it’s not coming back,” he says.
“Johnson is not the kind of bloke who is going to take seriously a message like, ‘I’m sorry, your appeal is now shot with voters’. He just won’t believe it. But the truth is, he is toxic. He’s been toxic for ages. He will remain toxic all the way through to election day.”