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The Conservatives have been heavily defeated in Wakefield by the Labour party and whomped by the Liberal Democrats in Tiverton and Honiton. It is the Labour party’s first by-election gain since 2012. It is also the fourth-biggest swing from Tory to Lib Dem in their history, exceeded only by Sutton and Cheam (1972), which was won by the Liberal party, North Shropshire (2021) and Christchurch (1993).

In both the 1970s and 1990s contests, the Conservatives were defeated in the general elections which followed. North Shropshire, where the Lib Dems overturned a 23,000 Tory majority, also took place under Boris Johnson’s premiership.

One Tory who has absorbed how alarming all this is for Conservative hopes is Oliver Dowden, who resigned this morning from his post as party chair, saying “someone must take responsibility” for the party’s current malaise (he tweeted his letter here). You don’t need to be Alan Turing to decode who exactly the “someone” Dowden is referring to there, but Johnson is not going to go without a fight, or without other cabinet ministers being willing to follow Dowden out the door.


Treason is a matter of dates

Oliver Dowden is usually a pretty good guide to which way the Conservative wind is blowing, and as such his resignation from the cabinet is significant.

There is no doubt in my mind that if Dowden has walked out on the prime minister, the party in the country is shifting away from Boris Johnson, too. Further government resignations may well follow. The one deterrent will be a reluctance to be seen to follow someone else, particularly a comparatively low-ranked cabinet minister, out of the door.

That said, we should expect to see more and more obvious manoeuvring for power. Sajid Javid, the health secretary, has set tongues wagging by holding a summer drinks reception for special advisers and there will be a lot more of that sort of thing as the summer wears on and conference season gets under way.

Blinded by the Lightwood

In Wakefield, Labour’s Simon Lightwood won the West Yorkshire seat lost to the Conservatives at the 2019 general election. In Tiverton and Honiton, the Liberal Democrat Richard Foord won the Devon seat with more than 22,000 votes.

Very little about these by-election results is surprising. The Conservative government is not popular, the prime minister is really unpopular, inflation is high, consumer confidence is low. As this research by YouGov shows, discontent with the current administration is spread across essentially every policy area:

These are not political conditions in which we would expect the governing party to be doing well. But what is striking is the extent of the tactical voting on display in both constituencies.

Bar chart of Percentage of votes showing In Tiverton and Honiton, Labour lost their deposit
Bar chart of Percentage of votes showing In Wakefield the Lib Dems took just 508 votes against Labour's 13,166

The big neglected electoral trend in the current parliament has been the return of Labour-Liberal Democrat tactical voting. That has held even when the Conservative government has been popular. Even during the local elections of 2021, when economic confidence was high, the UK was basking in the end of most coronavirus restrictions, and incumbents throughout the UK were heavily rewarded electorally, we were seeing these same very high levels of tactical voting by supporters of Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.

While we shouldn’t expect as significant a degree of tactical voting come a general election as we’ve seen at by-elections this parliament, even relatively minor amounts can have a big difference.

That’s one reason why the 1992 election ended in a smaller Tory majority than in 1987, and part of why the Conservatives have been able to win parliamentary majorities in the past decade is the breakdown of Labour-Liberal Democrat tactical voting. Labour voters did not want to vote tactically for the Liberal Democrats in 2015, Liberal Democrat voters did not want to vote tactically for Labour in 2019, and neither party’s voters were that keen on doing so in 2017.

The Conservatives can do something about their unpopular prime minister and they can hope for a return to better economic conditions by the time of the next election. However, the fact that Labour and Liberal Democrat voters have voted tactically in both good times and bad this parliament is a big problem for the Tories and one we should keep an eye on.


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Now try this

Jitney at the Old Vic is attracting rave reviews, including from our own Sarah Hemming. The play is on until July 9, then touring until August 6. There are lots of reasons to go to the Old Vic or the Young Vic theatre in London, but one cherry on the cake is that you can have a pre-theatre meal at the Anchor and Hope, one of London’s finest gastropubs, which in addition to serving excellent food manages to get you out the door in time for your play without making you feel either rushed or panicked.

However you spend it, have a wonderful weekend.

Inside Politics is edited by Georgina Quach. Follow Stephen on Twitter @stephenkb and please send gossip, thoughts and feedback to insidepolitics@ft.com.

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