Boris Johnson on Thursday faces his first big electoral test since last month’s sleaze scandal, in the first of two December by-elections that have seen new evidence that Labour and the Liberal Democrats are marshalling their forces to maximise damage to the ruling Conservatives.
Although both opposition parties insist that there is no formal deal, the Lib Dems have fought a minimal campaign ahead of Thursday’s Old Bexley and Sidcup contest in south-east London, giving Labour a clear run in a solidly Tory seat.
Meanwhile, Labour has decided not to campaign heavily in the Shropshire North by-election on December 16, even though the party finished second there in the 2019 general election, allowing the Lib Dems to be the focus for anti-Tory protest.
Labour strategists have said the rural Shropshire seat — left vacant after the resignation of former minister Owen Paterson in the sleaze row — is inhospitable terrain for the party and not worth spending scarce resources on.
One said: “We can see the Lib Dems have focused on Shropshire North and they’ll probably end up a good second there. They came second in the recent local elections — from their perspective it makes sense for them to concentrate their resources there.”
Johnson hopes the Conservatives will win both seats comfortably. The strongly pro-Brexit Bexley seat — left vacant after the death of former minister James Brokenshire — recorded a hefty Tory majority of 18,952 in 2019.
Meanwhile, Paterson bequeathed a 22,949 majority over Labour from the same election in another strongly pro-Leave seat. The Lib Dems finished third, but are stronger on the ground and gained seats there in local elections in May.
An internal Lib Dem memo claimed this week that the party’s canvas returns were better in Shropshire than at the equivalent point in June’s Chesham and Amersham contest, where the party secured a shock win.
The by-elections are a warning sign for Johnson that Labour and the Lib Dems are starting to ruthlessly allocate resources, giving each other a clear run against the Conservatives according to their respective local strengths.
There is no formal pact — Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has dismissed calls for a “progressive alliance” of parties including Labour, Lib Dems and Greens — but evidence of what one Labour figure called “organic” non-aggression pacts on the ground is mounting.
Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey has ruled out a formal pact, but he said that he shared a common objective with Starmer: “The Liberal Democrats are a crucial part of the fight to get Boris Johnson out of power.
“We will campaign in areas where we think we can win and I fully expect Labour to do the same. It’s no secret that we don’t put all our efforts into every by-election, but in Chesham and Amersham this summer and in North Shropshire now we can powerfully make our case.”
The anti-Tory message represents a clear break from the 2010-15 Con-Lib coalition era when Nick Clegg led his party into government with David Cameron’s Conservatives.
Senior Conservatives are concerned that the Bexley by-election could be close because of low turnout and voter apathy. Governments seldom perform well in such midterm contests, but Johnson’s administration is grappling with rising living costs, soaring energy bills and a resurgence of Covid-19 alongside the fallout of the sleaze affair.
Tory strategists are carefully watching the impact of what one described as “below the radar” collaboration between the Lib Dems and Labour in both by-elections.
“If the left actually got their act together, it could make things much more difficult in 2024,” one said. “We were lucky that the centre-right vote was entirely united at the last election and they weren’t. It could be a game changer.”
Tim Bale, politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, said: “If there is going to be a move towards some kind of progressive alliance or electoral pact, it will have to be tacit. There is no prospect of Labour or the Lib Dems — either at the top or on the ground — doing anything formal.”
The surprise Lib Dem victory in Chesham and Amersham was evidence of anti-Conservative tactical voting by Labour supporters. Sarah Green secured a 25 per cent swing and won with a majority of over 8,000.
The Labour campaign was virtually invisible and the party’s vote fell by 11 per cent, such was the extent of tactical voting for the Lib Dems that the Labour candidate received just 622 votes. But the positions were reversed a few weeks later in July at the Batley and Spen by-election.
In that contest, the Lib Dem campaign was very low key, although party insiders said it did fight strongly in two wards where it was deemed that “soft Tory” voters would not be prepared to switch across to Labour.
“We’d never go as far as to say there was an agreement, but we did fight to win over ‘soft-Con switchers’ in places where they were deemed unlikely to make a full conversion to Labour,” said one Lib Dem strategist. Labour won with a majority of just 323, averting a leadership crisis for Starmer.