One of the more preposterous traditional features of a by-election trouncing – or in the Conservative party’s case, two trouncings on the same day in the Tamworth and Mid-Bedfordshire by-elections on 19 October – are the projections of what would happen if the swing were repeated nationally. One such statistical exercise had it that the Conservatives would end up with 20 seats and Labour 480.
My conviction that this could not possibly happen was shaken by the inevitable reports the following weekend that 25 of the party’s MPs had written letters to the chairman of the 1922 Committee demanding a leadership election. If the Conservatives really do want to prove their absolute unfitness to govern, and to convince the public of the insanity of voting for any of them in the election that must happen before January 2025, kicking out Rishi Sunak would be a superb means of doing so.
Equally, it came as no surprise that the people who want this leadership contest are described as “supporters of Boris Johnson”. History will come to regard Johnson as our worst prime minister, worse even than Liz Truss, on the grounds of his chronic moral calamity and because he had so much more time than she did to do damage to his own and to the nation’s standing. The imbecility of the people demanding Sunak’s head can be gauged by the fact that they are oblivious to the catastrophe Johnson created and represented.
Apparently they haven’t noticed that he is no longer in parliament, so cannot actually become leader of the Conservative party again, even if he could afford to give up his atrocious column in a national newspaper and his roster of speaking engagements. And nor, in their anti-Sunak bloodlust, can they begin to think of who might replace him. Perhaps it would be one of Johnson’s vicars-on-earth, such as Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg. What a shame “Mad Nad” is no longer around to answer the call when her party, or at least a small and deranged section of it, needs her.
These loons hate Sunak because he famously resigned early-on in the denouement for Johnson in 2022, and an avalanche of others followed him. Only such fools could represent an entirely honourable, if overdue, act as one of treachery.
The Sunak regime may not be the most electrifying in his party’s history, but it is at least honest and competent. The loss of those two by-elections was little to do with him. Both seats had been held by arch-cronies of Johnson, so untalented that only a prime minister determined to appoint the completely obedient to serious office could want them in his team – Chris Pincher (Tamworth) as a Minister of State and Nadine Dorries (Mid Beds), in one of the great postmodern jokes of our times, as Secretary of State for Culture.
There are too many underperforming ministers, some of them leftovers from the Johnson years
Pincher had been put in the Whips’ Office by Theresa May, but resigned when accused of sexual misconduct. Remarkably, he was cleared and got his job back. You will not need me to remind you that it was allegations of sexual misconduct that led to his removal first from office and then from the Commons.
The direct cause of those by-elections was the appointment of two thoroughly unsuitable people to ministerial office. Both, in different ways, disgraced themselves by their moral conduct – Pincher in sexual matters, Mad Nad by demanding a peerage she did not merit, promising to resign and then not doing so, and neglecting her constituents in the process. Parliament is well shot of both of them; so is the Conservative party; and the candidates who tried to hold their seats were simply scapegoated by the voters, or at least by those who bothered to turn out.
And the question of turnout – 36 per cent in Tamworth and 44 per cent in Mid-Beds – is, ironically, the crumb of comfort that the Conservative party can draw from these two polls. Neither seat appears to be full of committed Labour voters, and the protest vote manifested itself in each place as vast numbers of people choosing to stay at home. The Tories should win the seats back at the general election: but to avoid annihilation they have to do much more than that.
Despite the Labour leader’s claim, after the two English by-elections, that the party must remain “humble”, it has a new flush of confidence – not just because of these events, but because of its victory over the Scottish National Party in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election. Again, the previous incumbent had behaved in a delinquent fashion – she had been chucked out of parliament for travelling by train when she knew she had Covid – and her electors took revenge on her. But it smelt to me as though the vote for the Labour party was a protest vote, much as people used to vote Liberal or Liberal Democrat in Conservative-held seats in England in by-elections, knowing they could revert at the general election.
Will Labour win a large number of Scottish seats, enabling it comfortably to govern the UK again? I am not so sure. The SNP is a mess, some of its former glitterati are under police scrutiny, and its present leader defines downwards the noun “mediocrity”. But its base has become tribal, and in some regards it is a tribal vote rooted in a nasty form of anti-English racism. Despite everything, the SNP could well hold on to a lot of its present seats at the election.
That thought should give some motivation to the Conservatives that there is something left to play for. It must surely be preferable for them to face the prospect of taking on a minority Labour government that might only last eighteen months or two years and whose room for legislative manoeuvre is highly circumscribed, than one that is in place until the end of the decade and can do whatever it wants – VAT on school fees, raising the top rate of tax, locking up people who “misgender” transsexuals, reforming the House of Lords to make it servile to the House of Commons, and so on. However, unless the Conservative party starts to put up a fight, there will be no honourable defeat from which it can quickly rebuild, but instead a thrashing that will consign it to the wilderness for at least two or possibly three parliaments.
There was a sign that this had been recognised immediately after the by-election defeats, with briefings on cutting taxation and stamp duty: but the Conservatives have to go further than the country’s fiscal arrangements. Sunak had a taste of what the public wants when his decision to delay electric cars and heat pumps won the support of around three-quarters of those surveyed in opinion polls – not because they wish to destroy the planet, but because they simply can’t afford these things. Now, instead of performing a creditable impersonation of a rabbit caught in the headlights, the Government needs, if it is to have any long-term prospects at all, to do a few more things that will provoke the Labour party and upset the BBC.
This starts with a rationalisation of welfare provision, and stopping paying people to be unemployed who are perfectly capable, at a time of labour shortages, of finding paid employment. It could also include a promise to reform the NHS, to ensure that its considerable funding is concentrated on doctors, nurses and professions allied to medicine, and not on bureaucracy.
It could do something about a police force that is viewed with disrespect and distrust, and is apparently laced with its own proportion of criminals, and which in the public’s view does less and less to prevent and detect crime. It should also recognise the depleted state of our armed forces at a time when the world is an exceptionally dangerous place, and transfer funding to them from less important parts of state.
And, before Christmas, Sunak should have a serious reshuffle. I keep being told reshuffles don’t win elections, and this one wouldn’t either But there are too many underperforming ministers, some of them leftovers from the Johnson years, who are ready for culling and replacing with people of drive and talent who might actually be able to stand up to their civil servants. Even if the Conservatives can’t win, to look as though they actually want to would be a start.
Simon Heffer is a historian, columnist for the Telegraph and Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham