In Devon you put the jam on last – scone, then cream, then a big dollop of strawberry. So last week’s by-election win in Tiverton and Honiton was the jam on top for the Liberal Democrats.
The victory in what has been a safe Conservative seat since it was created will send shivers down the spine of Tory MPs in similarly “safe” southern or rural seats.
And coupled with a decisive Labour victory taking back the Yorkshire seat of Wakefield, there is no good news for Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Parliamentary by-elections are strange things. Usually caused by death or resignation, parties can’t always choose their battlegrounds. This means there have to be two battles. Campaigns fight to win the contest, but they fight the war of expectations too. This means that a loss can sometimes look like good news. Spinners work hard to paint a picture of what a “good result” for their side would be.
There is however no good news here for the Conservatives. In Wakefield, Labour recaptured the seat more comfortably than many predicted. The Liberal Democrat victory in Devon also outperformed even the optimistic comments of Ed Davey and his team. Honiton and Tiverton has been Conservative since its creation – until today!
So what does this mean for our politics?
First, the health warning. By-elections by their very nature are not normal. When we know the Government won’t change, we may vote differently. We may not actually vote at all – turnouts are generally lower. Protest votes and key issues are magnified as activists flood areas which may not normally see much of a campaign. By-elections can “send a message” in a way that the hundreds of contests in a General Election can’t. Governments tend to do badly at the ballot box in the middle of their term.
So, we can’t say that these seats will not change hands again.
But, and the but is huge this time, for the Conservatives the scale of these defeats is significant. Two very different seats with different voting bases. Evidence of tactical anti-Tory voting which has the power to remove incumbents. And rather than an isolated incident, Tiverton and Honiton follows on from losses in other “safe” areas. There is nothing like the prospect of defeat to sharpen the minds of MPs who want to change their party. Boris Johnson survived the recent Vote of No Confidence but that won’t stop those who want him gone. The often-picturesque river Axe flows through Devon. I wonder how many Conservative MPs are now sharpening theirs?
Paula Keaveney is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Edge Hill University.
The results (top two only shown):
- Labour vote share 47.9 per cent
- Conservative vote share 30 per cent
Labour Gain from Conservative
Tiverton and Honiton
- Liberal Democrat vote share 52.9 per cent
- Conservative vote share 38.6 per cent
Liberal Democrat Gain from Conservative