By-election results: Why Scotland party associations are working out how to get around Boris Johnson

Having had our backsides handed to us on a plate last month by the Lib Dems in West Edinburgh, more than a few Edinburgh Conservatives will be nodding at now ex-national party chair Oliver Dowden’s observation that supporters “are distressed and disappointed by recent events”.

A few of us from the Edinburgh Association gathered on Thursday night to discuss our re-building plans after poor council elections.

Under normal circumstances, the by-elections would be prominent in the conversation, but it barely figured. Even from 600 miles away, we knew what was coming. From focus group information, we knew it was coming weeks ago.

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson attends the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kigali, Rwanda. Picture: Ian Vogler - Pool/Getty Images


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So rather than following loyally behind the national leadership in times of difficulty, associations in what should be fertile Conservative areas up and down the country will be working out how to get round the Boris-shaped problem. Maybe it will turn into a strength, but it’s a mark of Conservative fortunes ─ and the replacement of a guiding philosophy with reactions to circumstances ─ that a national organisation could instead become a collection of subversive cells with only a notion of a coherent direction.

Under normal circumstances, Mr Dowden’s excoriating early morning resignation letter would be a very big nail in the Prime Minister’s coffin, but far from his view that “we cannot carry on with business as usual”, that’s exactly what Mr Johnson will do. And with the rebel MPs having shot their bolt too early, the rest of the party just has to get on with it as best they can.

But then there’s the Wakefield result. Yes, Labour will be satisfied at the win, but a 4,000 majority in West Yorkshire when they were only 3,000 behind will have had their strategists looking at Tiverton and wondering what went wrong. No matter how much trouble Johnson might be in, Sir Keir Starmer still doesn’t look like a winner. Had it not been for Tiverton, yesterday’s post-mortems might be about Labour’s failure to put the Tories to the sword in what would otherwise be seen as a bog standard mid-term by-election.

Perhaps the only other silver lining for Conservatives from Thursday is that the scale of the challenge is now clear. No Tory seat anywhere in the heartlands of Englandshire is safe, but it’s equally clear that no-one knows how to address it as long as the Boris jalopy bounces along from crisis to crisis. Or if they do it’s a big secret.


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“Somebody must take responsibility,” wrote Mr Dowden, with the unwritten prefix “seeing as you won’t”, and that applies to Scotland too, where the challenge is different, but the problem the same.

The combination of disarray in Downing Street, a lacklustre UK Labour leadership, and Lib Dem irrelevance in Greater Glasgow and the West coast allows the SNP to stagger on with a record of underachievement, which would have sunk any other administration. Something has to change, and for their part Scottish Conservatives need to stand up as one and be counted.

“I will, as always, remain loyal to the Conservative Party,” concluded Mr Dowden, but obviously not to Mr Johnson. The 148 MPs who voted no confidence in the Prime Minster now looks like it’s at least 149 – the 1922 Committee chair Sir Graham Brady could have a busy summer.

- John McLellan is a former Scotsman editor and Conservative councillor for Craigentinny & Duddingston


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