Tiverton & Honiton and Wakefield by-elections: Tories' double defeat has unmistakable significance – Ian Swanson

There's a long history of dramatic by-election upsets causing discomfort for the party in power, stretching back to the 1960s and beyond.
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Governments always try to shrug them off as predictable mid-term protest votes. And sometimes the seat does revert to its previous voting pattern at the next election.

But sometimes by-election defeats reflect such widespread disaffection and disillusionment that they cannot be ignored.

Oliver Dowden quit as party chairman following the Conservatives' defeats in Wakefield and Tiverton & Honiton (Picture: Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)Oliver Dowden quit as party chairman following the Conservatives' defeats in Wakefield and Tiverton & Honiton (Picture: Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)
Oliver Dowden quit as party chairman following the Conservatives' defeats in Wakefield and Tiverton & Honiton (Picture: Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)
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The Lib Dem triumph in Tiverton and Honiton and Labour's victory in Wakefield last week had an unmistakable significance. They were twin clarion calls for Boris Johnson to go.

And in case anyone didn't get the message, it was rammed home by former ultra-loyalist Oliver Dowden who decided that rather go on TV and radio to defend the Tories' disastrous performance, he would quit as party chairman, insisting in his letter "we cannot carry on with business as usual" and pointedly failing to include any pledge of loyalty to the Prime Minister.

The Tiverton result was spectacular – a 29.9 per cent swing from the Tories to the Lib Dems and the biggest majority ever to be overturned in a by-election. It was a humiliation for the Tories in a seat they had held comfortably for nearly 100 years. And it has panicked scores of Tory MPs who won in 2019 with lesser majorities.

Although superficially less dramatic, Labour’s win in Wakefield with a 12.9 per cent swing, taking back a seat they had lost in 2019, was just as important and arguably of more significance. Even if Tiverton goes back to the Tories at the next general election – by no means certain, but nevertheless a risk – Labour will be hoping that the Wakefield result marks the seat’s return to what they see as its natural choice.

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But it is the double defeat for the Tories in two such different seats on the same day which means last week’s by-elections packed such a powerful punch. Tiverton represents the Tory heartlands and stands for countless true-blue constituencies, concentrated in the south of England but scattered around elsewhere too, who have lost patience with Boris Johnson.

Wakefield was one of the “Red Wall” seats in the north and Midlands of England where the Tories managed to persuade traditional Labour voters to back them for the first time in their lives.

The question was whether their defection was temporary or permanent, like the apparent mass switch by Labour voters in Scotland to the SNP in 2015. This result gives Labour reason to hope the shift was temporary.

There are other reasons why the by-elections were significant.

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Both seats were strongly pro-Brexit, which has come to be seen as the key dividing line in British politics, but the by-elections – held on the sixth anniversary of the EU referendum – suggest voters may now have relegated that as an issue and are more concerned about the performance of the government and the Prime Minister.

And the decisive outcome in each contest was helped by tactical voting – Labour supporters backing the Lib Dems in Tiverton and Lib Dems voting for Labour in Wakefield. There is no need for pacts, the voters can do it for themselves.

Boris Johnson blusters about “a third term” in Downing Street, but everyone else can see his days are numbered.

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