Congratulations to Dr Caroline Johnson, the latest addition to the Parliamentary Conservative Party, on her victory in Sleaford and North Hykeham. Here is the full result of that by-election:
Conservative: 53.5 per cent (-2.7)
UKIP: 13.5 per cent (-2.2)
Liberal Democrats: 11.0 per cent (+5.3)
Labour: 10.2 per cent (-7.0)
Lincolnshire Independents: 8.8 per cent (+3.6)
Coming only a week after Zac Goldsmith’s much-analysed defeat in Richmond Park ,there are three key things to note from the result:
This is what a ‘Brexit by-election’ looks like. We were told endlessly by the Lib Dems that Richmond was a ‘Brexit by-election’, but if anything Sleaford lives up to the name rather better. For a start, it was actually triggered by the MP resigning over his discomfort with the Government’s approach to Brexit – making it the undisputed topic at hand. Furthermore, this is one of the large majority of constituencies which voted Leave, whereas Richmond Park was unusual in being very strongly Remain. If, as we keep being told, Leave voters suffer ‘Bregret’ or ‘Bremorse’, then surely we would expect to see it manifested in the vote share for pro-Brexit candidates?
It turns out ‘Bregret’ is, well, a load of ‘bralls’. In this Brexit by-election, Brexit won hands-down. According to Chris Hanretty’s excellent estimates, Sleaford and North Hykeham voted Leave by 61.5 per cent. The Conservatives and UKIP combined won 67 per cent of the vote, while the Lib Dems won just 11 per cent. Not only did a clear majority vote for the Government’s position, and a further 13.5 per cent voted for something tougher, but the Lib Dems only managed to pick up less than a third of the former Remain voters whom they were targeting.
Tim Farron took the Richmond Park result to mean that the Government had no mandate for Brexit, and said his vision – continued Single Market membership, frustrating the process of Article 50 and a second referendum to try to keep us in the EU – had been “resoundingly backed”. The people of Sleaford and North Hykeham have reminded him that most constituencies are not Richmond Park, and even the minority who voted Remain in the referendum have resoundingly rejected his pitch.
No break-through for UKIP. The People’s Army will be pleased to have come second, up from third in 2015, in their first post-referendum, post-May, post-Farage, post-Diane James, post-Stephen Woolfe, Nuttall-era by-election. But the result looks distinctly Pyrrhic – their rise in the table only came because the Lib Dems ate into the Labour vote somewhat. This part of Lincolnshire is traditionally Eurosceptic territory, though the local party has suffered numerous bitter splits, so if voters had believed the claim on UKIP leaflets that there were “backsliders at work” in the Government then they would have punished the Conservatives. As it is, the downside of a pitch based on holding the Government’s feet to the fire is that if voters believe the Government are honouring the result, there is little for UKIP to gain. They will no doubt still boast of coming second, as is their right, while briefing that the real test of their new leader will come in a Labour heartland seat held by a Continuity Remain MP.
That ‘Corbyn surge’ continues – downwards. When Labour were celebrating the Lib Dems’ victory over Goldsmith, it seemed a little unwise. Could they not see the danger in allowing a rival party to describe itself as the best home for disgruntled Remainers? It’s a measure of how bad last night was for Labour that they are apparently telling journalists that fourth place isn’t so bad, because some people had speculated that the Lincolnshire Independents might push them into fifth. As it is, they only beat the Independents by 471 votes, and have sunk from the being the supposed alternative to the Conservatives in Sleaford to an irrelevant-looking fourth place.
The outlook for Labour on every front is extremely grim. Not only are they struggling in the headline polls, but the story looks bad in detail, too. Wiped out in Scotland, and replaced as the Holyrood opposition by the Conservatives. Supplanted by the Lib Dems as the Continuity Remain option in places like Richmond Park. Sunk by strong Conservative campaigns in English seats like Sleaford. Next they will be squeezed in their heartlands by UKIP. A lot of their MPs will be worrying about a perfect storm in which their vote is hammered from every direction on every issue.