The Conservatives are braced to lose two parliamentary by-elections, according to senior party strategists, in moves that could prompt a renewed backlash against Boris Johnson.
Voters will head to the polls on Thursday in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, and Tiverton and Honiton in Devon, in by-elections prompted by the resignations of Tory MPs.
It will be a chance for people to give a verdict on the prime minister’s conduct in the partygate scandal.
In April, Johnson became the first serving UK prime minister found to have committed a criminal offence after police fined him for attending a birthday party in Downing Street during a Covid-19 lockdown.
This month Johnson survived a bruising no-confidence vote by Conservative MPs, when 41 per cent of the parliamentary party refused to back him.
In Wakefield, the Tories are expecting to lose to Labour. Wakefield was once part of Labour’s so-called “red wall” of heartlands in northern England, but the Conservatives made substantial inroads at the 2019 general election under Johnson’s leadership.
The Tories won Wakefield with a 3,358 majority in 2019, but in April Conservative MP Imran Khan was convicted of sexually assaulting a 15 year hold boy and subsequently resigned.
In Tiverton, the Tories are facing a challenge from the Liberal Democrats, who are seeking to capitalise on Johnson’s falling approval ratings.
The Conservatives won the seat with a 24,239 majority in 2019, but Tory MP Neil Parish resigned after admitting watching pornography on his mobile phone in the House of Commons.
One Tory strategist working on the two by-elections said the Liberal Democrats were on course to win Tiverton with a “substantial” majority and Labour would secure Wakefield, albeit by a smaller margin.
The strategist added the by-elections were prompted by scandals surrounding the incumbent Tory MPs and it was natural the party would lose. “Midterm governments also don’t win by-elections,” he said.
Losing one or both by-elections is likely to lead to renewed questions about Johnson’s leadership, although Conservative party rules state he cannot face another no-confidence vote for 12 months.
One MP who refused to back the prime minister in this month’s no confidence vote said: “We’ll have proof that Boris is no longer popular. People will be calling on him to quit on Friday.”
Sir John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, said Wakefield “ought to be an easy win for Labour” given the party’s performance in May’s local elections and the slim Tory majority.
Curtice added: “Tiverton and Honiton should be more difficult for the Liberal Democrats than Wakefield is for Labour . . . The key test will be whether disaffected Tory voters are willing to use the Lib Dems as a protest vote.”
Sir Ed Davey, Lib Dem leader, said his party could be “on the verge of a historic victory” in Tiverton, adding “it is now neck and neck between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives and every vote will count”.
Some Conservative MPs who have campaigned in Tiverton said the party might be able to hold on.
One minister said Tory support was holding up better in Tiverton than in the North Shropshire by-election last December, when the Lib Dems seized the seat off the Conservatives.
But another Tory MP said there was “no chance” of the party winning in Tiverton.
Senior Labour figures expressed optimism about winning back Wakefield, but cautioned against a big majority.
“It’s going strong but we are very, very worried about complacency and turnout,” said one member of Sir Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet. “Anything over [a majority of] 1,000 will be a huge achievement.”
Another shadow cabinet member said: “Anything less than a 5,000 majority bodes badly for winning back the red wall.”