‘Anyone but Boris’ majority could doom the Tories to electoral oblivion

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People appeared to vote tactically in Tiverton and Honiton to overturn the Conservatives' massive majority - Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images
People appeared to vote tactically in Tiverton and Honiton to overturn the Conservatives' massive majority - Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

Predictions of electoral Armageddon on the back of by-election results tend to prove premature, but for the Tories there is one nightmare scenario that could yet come back to haunt them.

The most worrying aspect of their record-breaking defeat in Tiverton and Honiton was not the collapse in the Conservative vote, but the devastating effect of tactical voting in shutting them out from the ballot box.

The electorate, rather than political parties, formed a pact with each other to do whatever it took to defeat Boris Johnson’s party. If the same were to happen again in a national poll, the result could be seismic.

In Tiverton, the raw numbers were bad enough - a 24,239 Tory majority converted into a 6,144 Liberal Democrat majority with a swing of 29.9 per cent. It was the Conservatives’ worst ever numerical, as opposed to proportional, reversal at a by-election.

But what makes the result even more dangerous is that the Liberal Democrats were not even the runners-up at the last election. In 2019, the party could muster fewer than 9,000 votes, with Labour coming second on 11,654.

Contrast that with Thursday’s ballot, in which Labour’s Liz Pole lost her deposit with just 1,562 votes to the Liberal Democrats’ 22,537, and the power of tactical voting becomes clear.

Labour voters, knowing that a Liberal Democrat candidate would be more palatable to disgruntled Tories than their own candidate, switched sides in their thousands, using social media to spread the word and encourage others to follow suit.

The calculation was simple enough. If disaffected Tories and traditional Labour voters all switched to the Liberal Democrats in sizeable numbers, even a safe seat could be toppled.

All of this happened without any formal pact between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, although Labour put little effort into their campaign in Tiverton. That fact alone will give Oliver Dowden’s replacement as Tory chairman the most anxiety.

Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, said on Friday night that Labour and the Liberal Democrats must "come clean" over whether they have an electoral pact.

While general elections usually revert to three-way fights which favour the two main parties, an "anyone but Boris" election could result in massive gains for Labour and the Lib Dems, ushering in a coalition government and locking out the Tories for a generation.

Mr Javid told the Daily Mail: "A Starmer-led government propped up by the Lib Dems and SNP would break up our Union, and take our economy backward when we can least afford it. We must not allow that to happen which is why we need to unite and drive forward our agenda to deliver for the British people."

Anyone wanting to know how to use their vote to topple a Tory candidate can now enter their postcode on tactical voting websites, which helpfully recommend which party they should vote for at the click of a mouse.

Tactical voting also played its part in Chesham and Amersham, another Liberal Democrat gain.

Tiverton will be held up at the next election as a rallying cry in all of those safe seats where apathetic voters have stayed at home, believing their vote “won’t make any difference”.

Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters playing fantasy politics this weekend will be gleefully poring over data showing that if a Tiverton-style swing away from the Tories were repeated in a national poll, the Conservatives would lose 333 seats and be left with just 26 MPs. The only Cabinet ministers who would survive such a pollquake would be Liz Truss, Brandon Lewis and Steve Barclay.

Even a much smaller swing at a national poll would leave the current Cabinet exposed.

Five members of the Cabinet, including Boris Johnson, have majorities smaller than 10,000, which would be wiped out even by the 12.9 per cent swing away from the Conservatives seen in Wakefield.

Mr Johnson is known to be concerned about losing his Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat at the next election and was even nervous about it before the 2019 poll. He is defending a majority of just 7,210, compared with the 24,239 majority lost in Tiverton.

The other Cabinet members with four-figure majorities are Alister Jack, the Scottish Secretary, who has the Cabinet’s smallest majority on 1,805, Dominic Raab, George Eustice, Michael Ellis and Alok Sharma.

Across the party as a whole, 126 Tory MPs have majorities of less than 10,000, including 14 with majorities smaller than 1,000. A loss of 126 MPs would leave the Conservatives with 233 MPs, more than Labour has at the moment but enough to put Sir Keir Starmer in Number 10 as the leader of a coalition government.

Another danger for the Tories at the next election is the possibility that traditional Conservative voters will sit on their hands. Spectacular as the result in Tiverton may have been, it was delivered on a turnout of just 52 per cent, compared with 72 per cent at the last general election.

Low turnouts are traditionally good news for the Tories, as their vote tends to be “harder” than that for other parties - in other words, Tory voters will turn out come what may.

In Tiverton though, a low turnout appears to have been a sign that Tory voters simply stayed away. Helen Hurford, the Tory candidate, registered almost 20,000 fewer votes than Neil Parish, her predecessor.

Sir John Curtice, the election and polling guru, said  there was an apparent willingness of opposition voters - including Labour supporters - to vote for whichever of the parties locally seems better able to defeat the Conservatives.

He said this was “particularly crucial” in Tiverton and Honiton - where the Labour vote collapsed by 16 points, while the Liberal Democrat majority ended up being 14 points.

Mr Curtice noted that the Liberal Democrats were not only able to profit from a “protest vote” against the Tories but also their “ability to squeeze the Labour vote tactically”.

He added: “Labour voters, who hitherto have been reluctant to vote for the Liberal Democrats ever since they went into coalition with the Conservatives, seem willing to come back again.

He said that if this pattern continues into a general election, then people will vote locally for whichever party they think has the best chance of unseating a sitting Tory MP.

“And that was exactly what happened to John Major in 1997,” he said. “There was an awful lot anti-Conservative tactical voting.”

For the Tories to stay in power at the next election, they will have to hope that not only do their own voters come back to the ballot box, but that tactical voting does not become the norm.