Lame duck. A doom loop. Take your pick — all phrases convey the fate facing UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his Conservative party.
After 13 years in power, the Conservatives are in their death throes as a government. The end is in sight. The die has been cast.
And last Thursday three by-elections have confirmed that there is little Sunak and the Conservatives can do to stop their inevitable defeat at the next British general election. It is due by January 2025. Right now, many Conservative Members of Parliament and their supporters would prefer to see it done right now. End the misery. Take the punishment. Get it over and done with.
Yes, things are that bad.
In the constituency of Somerset and Froom, the Liberal Democrats overturned a large Conservative majority to chalk up their fourth successive by-election victory and cement their revival in areas that for too long have been Tory domain. It wasn’t even close. They were runaway winners. It was that bad.
Significantly, the win showed that for many who have been wooed by the Conservatives before, the Lib-Dems offer a far more moderate and reasonable brand of politics: The party is the only one that openly says Brexit was a grave mistake and the UK belongs in the European Union.
It shows too that it has been forgiven by voters for entering into a coalition agreement with David Cameron and was subsequently made the fall guy for the austerity cuts that followed. After all, all voters have to do is look at the cuts to public services and local government that have followed in the subsequent years under Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Sunak.
For Conservative MPs, many of whom represent constituencies in the south and west of the UK, the scale of Thursday night’s loss in Somerset and Froom is perhaps the one that sends the clearest message yet that it matters not how great the size of their majority, those Tory MPs are vulnerable.
If the scale of the Lib-Dem swing carries through to when that general election is called, the Conservatives might be lucky to come out of the count with a hundred or so seats. And likely many less.
The scale of that Somerset victory was helped by an informal voting pact at local level that meant that while Labour did field a candidate, Labour voters in the constituency were urged to support the Lib-Dems to secure the win in Britain’s first-past-the-post voting system.
Sir Ed Davey, the buoyant Lib-Dem leader took to the airwaves on Sunday morning to profess that if similar local voting pacts were in place across the UK, the Conservatives would be kept out of power for a generation.
In the north of England, in a constituency that borders on Sunak’s own Yorkshire seat, Labour swept to power in a remarkable win. The Selby seat was considered by Labour back room election planners to rank 237th in target seats. But the Conservatives were blown away — and again tactical voting at a local level ensured Sunak’s candidate was humiliated. It wasn’t even close. It was a blowout. A walkover.
A pyrrhic victory
Only in the Uxbridge and Ruislip by-election caused by the sudden resignation of Johnson after the Commons’ ethics committee passed damning judgement on his behaviour during Covid 19, was there a glimmer of hope for the Conservatives. Even then it was a fluke. A pyrrhic victory. Just prolonging the inevitable.
Local by-elections are often about local issues, and such was the case in the former PM’s constituency. When Boris was Mayor of London, he introduced a “ultra low emissions zone” (ULEZ) in central London to try and make the air there cleaner and greener. It introduced a charge on older, mostly diesel cars and lorries, for driving into the centre of London. Sadiq Khan, the Labour mayor, is planning to expand the ULEZ into a far greater area.
The controversy was enough to enable the Conservative candidate to squeak home by some 450 votes, a margin of victory one-twentieth the size enjoyed by the former prime minister.
Take the opposition to the ULEZ out of the race and Labour would have romped to victory. It was Khan’s self goal.
Inevitable election defeat
And when it comes to only having itself to blame, Sunak and the conservatives will know that is indeed the truth facing the government now in its last days before that inevitable general election defeat. Infighting. Brexit. Truss. Coronavirus. Ukraine. Inflation. Taxes. Debt. Interest rates. Strikes. Small boats. Trains. The NHS. Circle one or as many as Tories would like, the government hasn’t performed.
Right now, Labour has a 21 point lead over the Conservatives in the polls. While Sunak has tried to portray himself as a man on a mission who won’t be deterred by the pettiness of politics, he leads a party that right now is as unpopular as it was when Lis Tress was prime minister.
If, as Sir Ed suggests, Lib-Dems and Labour agree at a local level to engage in tactical voting, the Conservatives truly will be kept out of power for a generation.
You can be assured that officially, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer will be dismissing any such talk as nonsense and will be determined to campaign as if Labour offers the only true choice nationally for a change in government and the party will win power on its own. But don’t think for one minute that those tactical-voting conversations are not being had in quiet corners up and down England and Wales.
Who would not relish for one minute the Conservative being kept out of office for a very long time indeed?