Traditionally it was African heads of state that suddenly lost power at home while off globetrotting to international conferences.
Boris Johnson, currently in Rwanda to avoid his own MPs, seems set to turn convention that on its head.
A coup d’etat feels a little more likely now than it did even a few days ago. Unusually, the party chairman Oliver Dowden, previously shamefully loyal to Johnson, has quit in disgust (arguably before he was scapegoated and fired).
He isn’t bothering with spin and excuses. He has declared: “Our supporters are distressed and disappointed by recent events, and I share their feelings. We cannot carry on with business as usual. Somebody must take responsibility and I have concluded that, in these circumstances, it would not be right for me to remain in office.” Ouch.
Dowden is right. The only conclusion that can be reasonably drawn from these two results is that in large parts of the country the voters hate Boris Johnson so much they will willingly break the habits of a lifetime and vote for whoever else is best placed to get rid of him.
There is nothing like a humiliating by-election loss to concentrate political minds. Conservative backbenchers who reluctantly pledged their confidence in Johnson a few weeks ago will be contemplating the fairly plain messages the voters have sent to them about the performance of the government and the prime minister.
Those in marginal seats will obviously be the most panicked; but ambitious ministers and wannabe ministers in safe seats will see their careers foreshortened if this is the sort of thing they’ll face at the next general election. Given what we know about economic trends, a rising wave of strikes, struggling public services and the general air of national malaise around, things – to borrow a refrain – can only get worse.
On this sort of performance, the next prime minister of the United Kingdom will be Sir Keir Starmer, even though he’s “boring” and lacks the kind of voter appeal Blair did in his heyday. He won’t need electoral pacts because the voters will do that work for him. He won’t even need a “coalition of chaos” to govern. “Anyone but Boris” would seem to be voters’ motto.
As the politicians always say, these are “real votes in real ballot boxes” and they confirm the broad trend in the opinion polls and the May local elections. However, they also do something even more terrifying for a Conservative party that has grown used to a divided opposition. Wakefield and Tiverton & Honiton could hardly have been designed better as real-world experiments to see how far Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green voters will “lend” each other their votes in order to unseat a Conservative. Not since the 2001 general election have the main opposition parties both been in relatively good health, and enjoyed strong, widespread and voluntary anti-Conservative voting taking place.
The results are no less chastening for being widely anticipated. Set in context, the Wakefield result is actually only the second Conservative seat to be lost to Labour in a by-election in the past decade. The 12.9 swing to Keir Starmer’s party slightly exceeds the swing Ed Miliband achieved in Corby in 2012 but is smaller than the kind of jaw-dropping victories Tony Blair secured in the run up to the 1997 landslide. Johnson’s saving “transactional” grace for his party was that no matter how flawed he was, he could uniquely appeal to traditional Labour voters in places such as Wakefield. This result suggest that he is now just as likely to repel them, and the Brexit halo of 2019 has faded.
It is a point made even more powerfully in the southwest of England, where the Lib Dems scored a huge victory. The loss of three very safe Conservative constituencies in the past year, with evidence of tactical voting turbocharging the Lib Dems, cannot but cause concern among thinking Conservatives. Concerns about planning, about being left out of “levelling” up, about farming under the new post-Brexit trade deals, and the cost of home fuel oil (with no energy cap), all represent big changes for rural Tories. The southwest was once a stronghold for the Liberal Democrats, their very own regional base until the calamity of the 2010 coalition and the wipeout of 2015. Now it would seem resentments about tuition fees and austerity have been forgotten if not forgiven. The 29.9 per cent swing was smaller than North Shropshire, but larger than Chesham & Amersham; the really telling number was the collapse in the Labour vote four per cent and a lost deposit. Starmer won’t be upset about that.
For all their divergence socially, these two seats had some things in common, by way of mitigation from the Tory point of view. Both were caused by the forced resignation of the incumbent, which might have led some disgusted Tories to stay home rather than switch (though turnout doesn’t seem especially depressed in Wakefield by by-election standards). To compound that, both the replacement Conservative candidates were poor and had difficult moments during the campaign (something the departing Dwoden, as party chair, ought to be held responsible for). Perhaps both places were lost anyway, but there was no need to let the Tory campaigns look ridiculous: The low point was the Wakefield candidate drawing a wild analogy involving Harold Shipman.
To use the sort of language Boris Johnson enjoys, the people of the West Riding and of Devonshire have spoken for England, and given Big Dog a great big raspberry. The coup is on.
Source Link Voices: Voters have delivered their message on Boris Johnson. The coup is on