The make-or-break by-elections facing Rishi Sunak

The resignation of Boris Johnson and his allies Nadine Dorries and Nigel Adams spells trouble for PM

Former culture secretary Nadine Dorries
Former culture secretary Nadine Dorries seems determined to make Sunak ‘sweat’
(Image credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Rishi Sunak is facing three “highly problematic” by-elections in Conservative-held seats this summer after the resignation of Boris Johnson and two of his key allies.

The former prime minister and MP for Uxbridge & South Ruislip resigned on Friday over the findings of an investigation into Downing Street parties held during national lockdowns.

Johnson’s loyal supporter Nadine Dorries quickly followed, announcing her intention to stand down as MP for Mid Bedfordshire with immediate effect – but the former culture secretary has yet to formally resign. Nigel Adams, another long-time ally of the former PM, also announced he was quitting Parliament, triggering a third by-election in his Selby & Ainsty constituency.

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To compound Sunak’s problems, Tory MP David Warburton has also quit, this time over allegations of sexual harassment and cocaine use. So there will be a further by-election in Somerton & Frome, a former Liberal Democrat seat won by Warburton in 2019 with a 19,000 majority.

When will the by-elections take place?

The elections to replace Johnson and Adams will take place on 20 July. Sunak had “hoped to limit the political damage” by holding the Mid Bedfordshire by-election on the same day but Dorries appears determined to make the PM “sweat” by refusing to resign until “the moment of her choosing”, said the Financial Times (FT). “She might want to mess up Rishi’s holidays,” suggested one Tory MP.

The PM is facing a “summer crunch”, said the Daily Mail, with “the Tories desperately struggling to cling on in the seats”.

Who might win?

Labour, who were 16 points ahead of the Tories in the latest “poll of polls” on Politico, are “going for the treble” and standing candidates in all three constituencies triggered by Johnson quitting, despite the Lib Dems pushing to be the “main anti-Conservative option” in Mid Bedfordshire, a senior Labour source told The Times.

The party will be “vying with the Liberal Democrats” for Dorries’ seat after it finished a “distant” second in the constituency at the 2019 general election – 25,000 votes behind Dorries. The Lib Dems came an even more distant third.

Projections show that the Tories could retain Mid Bedfordshire, said The Telegraph, but with a “vastly reduced” majority of just 2.5%, down from a 38% margin in 2019.

Uxbridge & South Ruislip is “by far the most marginal” seat, said The Times, with Johnson winning the seat by a majority of 7,210 votes in 2019. Labour has already selected 34-year-old local councillor Danny Beales as its candidate. Polling expert John Curtice told The Telegraph that the seat is a “lost cause” for the Tories, noting Labour would require only a 7% swing to win there.

Labour face a bigger challenge in Selby & Ainsty in North Yorkshire. The Conservatives will be defending a large majority – Adams beat his Labour rival by more than 20,000 votes in 2019. But a Labour win in the Conservative stronghold would be seen as a sign that Keir Starmer “is on course for a similarly dominant electoral performance”.

What does it mean for Sunak?

The prime minister and his party, facing criticism on multiple fronts, face four major electoral tests in the coming weeks. And the nature of Johnson’s exit is “likely to remind voters of the parliamentary chaos that dominated much of last year”, said the Big Issue.

Dorries’ resignation delay will only “sow unrest” in the Conservative parliamentary party, pushing what is likely to be a “difficult” by-election into the autumn and close to the Conservative Party conference, said The Independent. Sunak has criticised the delay, describing it as “unusual” and said that Dorries’ constituents deserve “proper representation”.

But while the “undignified squabble” of the past few days is “mainly a disaster” for the Conservatives, it could provide Sunak with a “glimmer” of an opportunity, said Daniel Finkelstein in The Times.

The nature of Johnson’s departure has “removed from the prime minister the obligation of pretending that he and Johnson are in harmony”. While there has long been warfare between the two, “now the warfare is open”, allowing Sunak to “say what he really thinks about his predecessor”.

There is a scenario in which Sunak and the Conservatives could emerge from the by-elections “stronger than ever”, suggested ITV’s political correspondent Harry Horton. Mid Bedfordshire and Selby & Ainsty are “comfortable ground” for the Conservatives, thanks to their large majorities. If the Tories were to pick an anti-Ulez [Ultra Low Emission Zone, which is being extended this summer to cover the whole of London] candidate in Uxbridge & South Ruislip, then it’s “not inconceivable” that the by-election would be seen as a de facto referendum on Ulez, a subject which is “much trickier territory for Labour”.

If the Tories can “cling on” in Johnson’s former seat while keeping Mid Bedfordshire and Selby & Ainsty blue, Sunak is likely to head into the autumn with “renewed confidence” ahead of the general election.

But a win for Labour in Uxbridge & South Ruislip – or significant inroads from Labour or the Lib Dems in the other three seats including Somerton & Frome – will leave Sunak “under yet more pressure” and only “extend the gloomy mood already prevalent among many Tory MPs”.

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