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The Conservative loss of the Tiverton & Honiton constituency is the biggest majority lost at a by-election ever in the UK.

It sees the Liberal Democrats start to claw back the constituencies that David Cameron so comfortably won in the 2015 General Election, a yellow implosion that paved the way for Conservative successes in 2017 and 2019.

In a set of by-elections initiated by abject failures of integrity, the campaigns were always going to be framed by the opposition as a choice between honesty and deception – indeed in Devon the Liberal Democrat’s iconic orange triangular lawn sign slogan was updated from their traditional ‘Winning Here’ to ‘Demand Better’.

For that’s the context of these unusual by-elections: in Wakefield the seat was vacated after the former Conservative MP was sentenced for historic child molestation. In Tiverton & Honiton it was due to watching pornography in Parliament. When combined with the national discussion about partygate, accusations of lying to the Commons and general lack of standards in public life, it’s clear to see that these Conservative losses are more than just a classic mid-term slump.

Boris Johnson’s tried and tested ability to corral a broad coalition of supporters under a Conservative banner is coming under increasing doubt as that disparate voter base appears to be moving in two very different directions.

The Southern voters who tend to be socially liberal and economically conservative (with a small ‘c’) appear troubled by Rwanda deportation plans, large scale government spending and attacks on liberal institutions like Channel 4. The Northern constituencies, by contrast, have opposing needs: culturally more conservative, but in desperate need of levelling up funding following decades of underinvestment.

Riding these two-horses simultaneously was always going to be a challenge. Now that we are out of the pandemic, and Ukraine is starting to fade from the front of British consciousness, a stronger narrative is sorely needed. What does Boris Johnson offer to the United Kingdom? What will you get for voting Conservative at the next General Election? Will I lose my seat under this Prime Minister? These will be some of the questions troubling many in the Conservative Parliamentary party as they wake to digest these results.

Despite this, the outcome isn’t surprising. After Lib Dem gains in North Somerset and Chesham & Amersham, their loss will have been priced in weeks ago when the no confidence vote in the Prime Minister took place - and Boris Johnson was able to retain the support of his colleagues. While the result in Wakefield will be disappointing for the government, it was not a stunning victory for Labour either.

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Wakefield was a Labour seat for its entire existence, until 2019. Professor John Curtice this morning reveals that their victory was more about the Conservative drop (17 percentage points) than a meteoric Labour vote rise (up just 8 per cent). When Ed Miliband was Labour Leader, his party fought 10 by-elections where the Labour vote share rose by more than 8 per cent – and he went on to lose the 2015 General Election.

Indeed it’s not all rosy for the Liberal Democrats either – in Tiverton there was some Lab/Lib switching, but their total vote as a share of the whole electorate only went up from 25 per cent to 29 per cent. The Conservative vote collapsed from 43 per cent to just under 20 per cent. 20,000 Conservative voters stayed at home. In Wakefield the turnout was very low indeed, and the Lab/Lib vote fell from 28 per cent to 20 per cent. The Conservative vote fell further, which is why they lost. But it is far from an enthusiastic endorsement for the main opposition parties, despite their respective wins. While the results were anti-Conservative, they weren’t especially pro-Labour or Liberal Democrat.

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It would be easy for hopeful Conservative Members of Parliament to expect many of these by-election losses to return to the fold naturally come the next General Election. They have some cause for this optimism: a national poll asks a very different question to that of a standalone by-election: local electors know that they’ll not change the Government if they protest with their votes, the same is not true of a General Election where the stakes are that much higher.

Yet this morning’s resignation of well-respected Conservative Party Co-Chairman Oliver Dowden is anything to go by, then this is far from guaranteed. In his letter to the Prime Minister he said: ‘our supporters are distressed and disappointed by recent events, and I share their feelings. We cannot continue with business as usual.’ Is this an honourable person doing the decent thing, or a sign of something else?

What will happen next? The rail strikes of recent weeks show that moving the conversation on from partygate is possible, and shifting the national narrative towards tackling the humongous challenges facing the country will be key to that. Soon summer recess will be upon us, and MPs of all parties will go back to their constituencies. This period away from the Westminster bubble can serve to calm talk of rebellion, or upon meeting the electorate it could ferment it.

Come the autumn we’ll be quickly into Party Conference and Budget season. The Harriet Harman-chaired Privileges Committee will publish its partygate verdict. The pressure to meaningfully bear down on the cost of living, repair the economy and Level Up the regions, will increase.

Focus groups consistently describe Keir Starmer as ‘boring’, with even various members of the Shadow Cabinet repeatedly briefing against him to the press. His need to tread a careful line to avoid alienating sceptical voters presents a challenge: what does Labour offer other than ‘we’re not the Conservatives’? Labour lost their deposit in Tiverton & Honiton, a sign of the increasingly polarised political geography of the United Kingdom. The SNP hold on Scotland crush any hope that Labour have of forming a majority administration. The Liberal Democrats aren’t in a much better position, despite some by-election success, their road to increasing their seat total in a General Election is very narrow – and, like Labour, they lost their deposit in Wakefield.

The next election is still the Conservatives to lose. The Government has two years to get the economy firing on all cylinders; demonstrate a clear and sustainable plan for growth and bear down on the cost of living. Do that, and they’ll remain the largest party in Parliament.

Whatever happens over the coming weeks and months, this tumultuous political period is far from over.

by Mario Creatura, Director