Voices: Catastrophic Tory election results show the writing is on the wall for Sunak

Sunak’s party is plumbing fresh depths (Getty Images)
Sunak’s party is plumbing fresh depths (Getty Images)

“Seismic” is how Keir Starmer described the result of the by-election in Blackpool South and, just for a change, a bit of political hyperbole is justified.

Indeed, the historically large swing to Labour of 26 per cent from the Conservatives in the seat, the third biggest since the war, was only one of many tremors and rumbles that augur badly for Rishi Sunak’s chances of staying in power once the general election comes – and they’ll be destabilising his leadership over the next few days as more results shake the political order.

As Sunak himself dramatically put it the other day, they will need the biggest comeback in history to turn things around in the course of the next few months, and, with all due respect, neither he, Jeremy Hunt nor anyone else in the cabinet look like they’re going to emulate Lazarus.

The most significant phenomenon that we have witnessed in these elections – and in the previous runs of by-elections and municipal contests – is a steady unravelling of the Brexit effect.

We can see the consequent dismantling of the populist coalition of voters assembled by Boris Johnson in his remarkable 2019 general election success – and the end of what looked to be a realignment of British politics. Or, at the very least, a different kind of realignment seems to be emerging.

With Brexit hardly mentioned these days – and the issue euthanised by Starmer, Labour is making some of its biggest gains in areas where the Leave vote was highest in 2016 and where Johnson’s Conservatives were able to mobilise it to “get Brexit done” in 2019.

Hartlepool would be one fine example – as well as Thurrock in Essex, where in both cases Labour took control of the council after years in the doldrums. Indeed, the Blackpool result also confirms that trend.

By contrast, we shall soon see if Ed Davey’s ambition to take the “blue wall” down in the Remain-supporting, more liberal-minded south of England is making further progress. That is the other arm of Johnson’s 2019 electoral alliance that has abandoned the party. Hanging on in ultra-safe Fareham in Hampshire is probably as good as it’s going to get for the Tories.

Yet while populist Conservatism may have lost its way, that doesn’t mean that populism has lost its appeal – and the size of the vote won by Reform UK in Blackpool should also register on the Richter scale.

Only 107 votes separated the Reform UK candidate from grabbing runner-up status in the seat and overtaking the Conservatives. At 16.8 per cent of the vote, Richard Tice, the party leader, should be well satisfied.

Poor old Blackpool isn’t really what they call a “red wall” seat, as it has been a marginal and a safe Tory seat in the past, but it is now precisely the kind of place where Reform (like Johnson before) should expect to do well – a bit run down and “left behind”.

The Tory failure, for whatever reason, to “level up” these places is costing them dear, turning people to Labour but also splitting the right-wing vote with Reform. In due course, that means letting Labour build up an arguably artificially high parliamentary majority next time round.

Will Reform’s near-miss for second place in Blackpool South also reverberate in the mind of Nigel Farage, who remains president and basically owner of Reform (which, unusually, is a private company, “Reform Party UK Limited”)?

Last glimpsed basking in the Florida sunshine rather than getting the vote out in the Blackpool drizzle, Farage has been teasing us again about a return to frontline politics. Reform’s best result by far in a by-election might tempt him back, which has the potential to add to the earthquake that’s demolishing the Tory vote.

Yet Farage of all people will know that 10 years ago, when he was running Ukip, he and his then vehicle were registering much bigger gains across the board. The trends in the polls suggest that Reform at about 15 per cent may even exceed the Tories in voting intentions, with Sunak’s party plumbing fresh depths – down to 18 per cent most recently.

Reform still lacks a national party organisation – and its failure to win some council seats in Hartlepool, where it was once pretty strong, suggests that the arrival of “Nigel Farage MP” in the Commons remains a mirage. They did respectably in places such as Lincolnshire and Sunderland, but it’s not yet as revolutionary as Ukip in its heyday.

The results were almost unalloyed good news for “Seismic Starmer” – but there are little tremors of weakness for Labour there, too. Behind the long list of council gains and mayoral triumphs that will be understandably celebrated by Starmer, lies a growing drift of leftish and/or Muslim voters to ex-Labour independent candidates in places such as Oldham (where Labour lost its tenuous grip on power).

We see this replicated in Bristol, where shadow cabinet member Thangam Debbonaire is about the only Labour MP at risk for the general election.

Gaza and Starmer’s perceived general timidity are obviously behind these mini-rumbles going in the “wrong” direction; but no one is disaffected enough to vote Conservative as a protest. The slow but seemingly persistent long-term rise of the Greens may prove to be a problem for a Labour government, if and when it encounters its own difficult times. It will be interesting to see if the Greens resist the two-party squeeze and keep their third place in the London mayoralty.

As for Sunak’s leadership, it is not too early to say that these disappointing results are keeping it in play – because his “plan” isn’t working, leastways in political terms – and there’s no sign it ever will.

Cast your mind back about 18 months to Sunak’s high-profile five “people’s priorities”. In a sense, they were wisely chosen and reflected the polling and common sense.

Sunak was right that people worried about inflation, about NHS waiting lists, about “small boats” immigration, about the public finances and a generally stagnant economy. He’s had his successes there, and his failures, but the one thing that can be said is that the voters have not been so persuaded by Sunak’s record to change their minds and believe that he and his party deserve a fifth term of office.

His last hope is that Andy Street in the West Midlands and Ben Houchen in Tees Valley will hang on to their mayoralties and he can use their success to “prove” that his plan is working.

But he, his party, and the country knows that if Street and/or Houchen win after their highly personal campaigns, it will be despite Sunak rather than because of him. Street even banned Sunak from turning up in his region; but both welcomed Johnson’s public support.

The political shocks are going to continue for days to come; and things are going to be very shaky for the PM.