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News From the Other Side of the Pond

We have two more items on Israel coming up, one of them already written and the other partly so. However, we want to give ourselves time to get them as right as we possibly can, given the touchy nature of the subject. So, let's take a break, and examine a different foreign affairs subject.

We are always interested in goings-on in British politics, given the tendency for events in the Isles to parallel events in the United States. Because we've done so much on Israel, this had to sit on the back burner for a week or so, but we now present a report that our three regular British correspondents were kind enough to collaborate on:

G.S. in Basingstoke, England, UK: As a small distraction from the problems for leaders in the United States, let's talk about an electoral headache for conservative leaders from this side of the pond. Recently, two by-elections for seats in the House of Commons were held here in the United Kingdom. The first, in Tamworth, was caused by the resignation of the current MP following findings of sexual misconduct. Former MP Chris Pincher (no, really) had received a suspension from the House of Commons, was likely to be recalled, and so jumped before he was pushed. The second, in Mid Bedfordshire, was caused by the resignation of the MP Nadine Dorries after Boris Johnson's dethroning. Dorries covenanted to resign "with immediate effect" on June 9 but delayed this until August 29 to investigate the apparent blocking of her peerage by "sinister forces" in Rishi Sunak's government. For those potentially amused by what a truly British fit of pique looks like, Dorries' scathing resignation letter to the Prime Minister may be found here.

Tamworth, located in pretty much the middle of England, has historically been a bellwether constituency but trended heavily Conservative in recent elections. A moderately affluent, demographically white market town, Tamworth gave us Robert Peel, one of the more famous of the Conservative Victorian era Prime Ministers, and enjoys the ignominious distinction of being the most overweight town in England. At the last election in 2019, Pincher won with a vote share of 66% and a margin of 43%; this time the good people of Tamworth reversed their rightward trend and returned a new Labour MP, Sarah Edwards—a swing to Labour of 23.9%.

Mid Bedfordshire, located in the London commuter belts, is pretty much your archetypal Conservative safe seat: rural, wealthy, with health and home ownership well above the national average, the Conservatives gained it from the Liberals in 1931 and have held it ever since, with voters electing Nadine Dorries three further times after a much criticized appearance on a survival reality TV show in 2012. At the last election Dorries won with a vote share of 60% and a majority of 38%; last week, the seat changed hands for the first time in the best part of a century, with a swing to Labour of 20.5%.

As a very coarse analogy with American states (and one which will doubtless prompt much justified criticism!): Tamworth was the Conservatives' 57th safest seat of their then-354 MPs. Working to the same centile, this result is roughly equivalent to the Democrats flipping the states of either Idaho or Arkansas. By vote share, the closest analogy is Tennessee or Louisiana. You may be unsurprised that the BBC's resident psephologist called this "one of the worst nights any government has endured." It is true to say, as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak immediately commented, that by-elections are often idiosyncratic and "local factors were at play." That said, the sheer size of the swing and the history of the seats is causing some to predict a repeat of 1997's general election when Tony Blair's government swept to power in a landslide. We shall find out within the next 15 months or so whether they are right.

A.B. in Lichfield, England, UK: What will particularly worry Conservative Party strategists about these by-election losses is how different Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire are; and yet both seats were won by Labour in crushing results. Tamworth was represented by Labour from 1996 through 2010, but its county of Staffordshire subsequently became one of the staunchest pro-Brexit regions in the country, with its Conservative MPs—except in the traditional pottery-making city of Stoke-on-Trent, where the seats are much more marginal—elected by increasingly significant margins. This is prime "Red Wall" territory, where Labour will need to win back Brexit-supporting traditional Labour voters who switched to the Conservatives under Johnson. Results like Tamworth suggest that they're well on their way; and if you believe in omens, the last time Labour took the seat from the Conservatives was in a 1996 by-election—the year before Tony Blair's crushing 1997 general election landslide.

Mid Bedfordshire, in contrast, is a traditional affluent Conservative-supporting seat that was last won by a party other than the Tories in 1929, when it was won by Milner Gray of the old Liberal Party. This is the type of seat that the latter's descendants in the form of the modern centrist Liberal Democrats might have expected to win. Indeed, there was speculation that with Labour and the LibDems both pushing to win the seat, the Conservatives might just sneak through and hold on. Instead, Labour set a new record for the largest majority ever overturned in a UK by-election (with the LibDems finishing a strong third). If Labour can win Mid Bedfordshire, then very few Conservative seats can be considered safe.

And one other nagging worry for Conservative Party strategists is that in both Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire, the Labour majority was smaller than the share of the vote won by the far-right populist Reform Party (previously the Brexit Party of the Trump supporting Nigel Farage). No one expects Reform to win seats in next year's general election, but they plan on running in every constituency, and if they can bleed 2-5% of the vote from the Conservatives, the latter party may well find themselves losing close seats to Labour and the LibDems (and perhaps the SNP and Plaid Cymru in Scotland and Wales) because they're being squeezed from both the left and the right.

But when will next year's general election take place? In theory, Sunak could wait until January 28, 2025, but given this means dissolving Parliament on January 3, no one thinks the Prime Minister is insane enough to run a campaign over Christmas and the new year. In a normal year, we might be looking at October or November, but Conservative Central Office is said to be cautious about holding an election while the U.S. presidential election reaches its climax. The current favorites are September or perhaps holding the general election alongside the May 2, 2024, local elections on the theory that it's better to rip the electoral band-aid off just once rather than suffer successive bad losses in both the local and the general elections.

Finally, on a quick personal note, and just to emphasize for our American cousins how different British historical contexts can be, Tamworth was the political capital of the Kingdom of Mercia in the 7th through 9th centuries, while neighboring Lichfield—where I live—was founded in its current form as the Kingdom's ecclesiastical capital in the 660s by St. Chad of Mercia (not the patron saint of contested Florida elections). These days, alas, Mercia's ancient capitals seem to be better-known for colourful right-wing populist MPs than their rich history; at least until Labour took Tamworth.

S.T. in Worcestershire, England, UK: So, why are the Conservatives performing so badly?

There are a number of factors but number one must be "the economy, stupid." The U.K. is in the midst of a period of stagflation and it could be a long while before the outlook improves for most voters. Further, the level of taxation is at or near a 70-year high and the government seems to have little headroom to reduce it (though it's worth noting that Liz Truss still thinks otherwise and has just launched a "think tank" to advocate unfunded tax cuts—a policy that worked so well during her "successful" 49 day premiership). Sheer exhaustion is another problem. After 13 years partially or wholly in government, Conservatives are producing few new ideas and it gets increasingly difficult to blame others for the nation's problems. The state of public services is a third issue. To take a single "you cannot make it up" news item from the last fortnight, judges were requested not to pass prison sentences, as U.K. jails were full. This is not a position which the "Party of Law and Order" can feel comfortable about having happen on its watch.

And do the by-election results matter? It is often the case that some are reversed in a subsequent general election (in the 1992 general election, the Conservatives recovered every seat they had lost in the 1987-92 parliament). Turnout is often far lower at by-elections than general elections, as was the case in these two recent elections (but if that affects only one party, that party has problems). By-elections arising from misbehavior by an incumbent often see exceptional results and arguably this covers both contests. And yet... by-elections do impact the political climate. They confirm opinion poll leads (Labour is currently about 15% ahead of the Conservatives in national polls). They create expectations. They certainly influence the mood within parties. And results on this scale mean something and a lot of parallels are being drawn to the 1990's when a similar run of results led to the 1997 general election when the Conservatives lost over half their seats and entered the political wilderness for 13 years.

Above all the Conservatives are running out of time to improve their political fortunes before the next general election. And the agony is not over yet. On Wednesday this week Conservative MP, right winger and Brexit champion Peter Bone was suspended for 6 weeks, after an independent review found him guilty of bullying and sexual misconduct. Suspensions in excess of 10 days can trigger a recall petition which in turn can result in a by-election. Apparently signatures for the petition are already being collected. Bone's Northamptonshire seat, Wellingborough, is not dissimilar to Tamworth. And the results of yet another investigation into Scott Benton, also a Conservative MP, over inappropriate lobbying, are imminent. Benton only gained his marginal seat Blackpool South at the last election. It is one of the fabled "red wall" seats that Labour are desperate to regain. They may well get the opportunity to do so earlier than expected.

Thanks, chaps! And tomorrow, we return our attention to Israel. (Z)

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