Euan McColm: Don’t be fooled by Uxbridge, the Conservative party is still a laughing stock

It was a bold, if unconvincing, attempt at brave-faceism. Appearing on Radio Four’s Today programme on Friday morning to discuss his party’s miserable results in a trio of by-elections – one lost to Labour, one lost to the Liberal Democrats, and the seat previously held by Boris Johnson saved by fewer than 500 votes – Tory chairman Greg Hands MP was in the mood to wrestle reality.

The standout result of the night, said Hands, had been the win in Johnson’s former seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

Laughter filled the studio. Presenter Nick Robinson swiftly clyped on the guilty men – the seemingly omnipresent polling expert Professor Sir John Curtice and the BBC’s political editor Chris Mason.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

It’s hard to think of a more crushing humiliation in the world of politics than one’s analysis provoking laughter from Curtice. You could almost have felt sorry for Hands.

Others could, I think, make the case that the stand-out result of the night was the Lib Dems’ victory in Somerset and Frome, where the party overturned a Conservative majority of more than 19,000 with a 29 per cent swing or Labour’s triumph in Selby and Ainsty, where a 20,000-plus Tory majority was obliterated.

Inevitably, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak – who had been anticipating a trio of defeats – clung to that Uxbridge result as proof that the game was not yet over for the Conservatives. The afflicted must take comfort where they can, I suppose but it was desperate stuff from Sunak.

Entertainingly, it wasn’t solely Tories who took strength from the Uxbridge result. On Friday, as the results of the by-elections were being picked over, the chairman of the Uxbridge and South Ruislip Constituency Labour Party resigned his position and handed back his membership card.

In a parting shot, the outgoing official praised former party leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

The idea that Corbyn might have helped Labour win the seat previously held by Boris Johnson is fanciful, at best. The stout folk of Uxbridge and South Ruislip did not. by a tiny margin, return a Tory MP because the Labour alternative wasn’t left-wing enough.

This self-indulgent outburst didn’t shake the leadership of Sir Keir Starmer. In fact, I’m sure he’d be perfectly happy for any more Corbynista cranks to identify themselves and quit the party.

That resignation beautifully illustrated the foolishness of the political ideologue. Rather than remaining in the party to argue his positions, the CLP chair preferred to give up any power he held.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The analysis of every by-election result comes with a cautionary warning: it is the case that governments tend to lose by-elections. It is also something of a tradition that they win them back at subsequent general elections.

You will have heard sundry Tory MPs make this point over the past couple of days.

But just because that’s how things have happened in the past, there’s no reason to assume a repeat of history.

Polling doesn’t just show consistently huge leads for Labour, it highlights genuine and sustained anger with this Government.

News that messages requested by the Covid inquiry have been retrieved from a phone belonging to former Prime Minister Boris Johnson comes, if it was needed, as a reminder of the solid foundation upon which this righteous fury stands.

The rage of those who played by the rules throughout lockdown - many still grieving the loss of loved ones to Covid - while Boris Johnson and his staff partied in Downing Street will not quickly subside. The Covid inquiry will, I think, ensure “partygate” remains a serious problem for the Conservatives.

There is growing anger, too, among homeowners who’re seeing their mortgage bills skyrocket. Every month, thousands more people see their fixed rate deals expire and their payments soar by hundreds a month.

This ever-increasing constituency will surely play a significant role in ending the Tories time in power.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Some Conservatives may console themselves that last Thursday’s by-elections came at a difficult time, but the truth is times aren’t going to get any easier for Rishi Sunak’s government, any time soon. The Conservatives cannot outrun anger over lockdown-breaking parties and six-grand-a-year mortgage increases, can they?

Labour may still be on course for election victory but the party’s chances in Scotland may have taken a knock. Last week, Starmer let it be known that his party would not overturn the austerity-era two child benefit cap. Labour had been expected to end the restriction of the payment of child benefits. Starmer’s announcement was seen by senior Labour figures south of the border as necessary reassurance that his would not be a financially reckless government. Painful though it may be for many on the left, there is good reason to think Starmer’s position i politically wise. Recent Yougov polling showed 60 per cent of UK voters are in favour of retaining the benefit cap.

In Scotland, where a smaller majority – 53 per cent – support the cap, Starmer’s position may yet harm his party.

The SNP’s achievements in power may be meagre but perhaps the Scottish Government’s most significant innovation has been the weekly 25-quid-per-kid child payment for families accessing benefits.

Starmer has allowed the SNP to position itself to the left of Labour in Scotland.

This should worry Scottish party leader Anas Sarwar. Recent polling showing a likely surge in support for Labour in Scotland at the next general election was based on voters who had previously backed the SNP switching their allegiance. Might righteous nationalist attacks about Labour defending a hated Tory policy persuade some of those voters to stick with the SNP?

Thursday’s by-election results suggest Keir Starmer will be the next Prime Minister. He has work still to do if Scotland is to play a significant part in his success.



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.