The Prime Minister may be out of the UK for eight days as he embarks on a diplomatic tour taking part in a triumvirate of summits – CHOGM, the G7 and NATO – but he cannot escape the enormity of what happens at home during his first test of the ballot box. since this month’s vote of confidence in his leadership.
These by-elections are particularly instructive because they cross two electoral battlefields to Boris Johnson.
Wakefield is in its bank of Red Wall seats taken from Labor in 2019.
Tiverton and Honiton are in real Blue Devon, the rural South West Blue Wall, where the Lib Dems are hoping to take what should be a super-safe seat from the Tories.
Follow live updates on a nervy night for Boris Johnson in two by-elections
In Wakefield, Labor are quietly confident of winning back that West Yorkshire seat lost to the Conservatives in 2019, while in Tiverton the Lib Dems are hoping they can “climb a mountain” to win – provided they can vote.
Losing both seats will be deeply uncomfortable for Mr Johnson.
The last time the Conservatives lost two seats in a by-election on a single day was in 1991 (although the party continued to win back those constituencies in the 1992 general election).
But it would be a record moment if both seats fell, as it would mean the Lib Dems had overturned a 51.5% Tory majority – the largest percentage Tory majority ever overturned in a by-election.
When asked if he would consider his position if he lost both seats, the Prime Minister appeared dismayed.
“Are you insane?” he replied to reporters, as he sought to downplay the importance of these two by-elections.
Mr Johnson dismissed questions that his popularity had been badly damaged by partygate and the aftermath vote of confidencepointing out that only a year ago he defied all odds with a historic win at Hartlepool.
But he also sought to dampen expectations, telling reporters as he disembarked in Kigali, Rwanda, that while he was “always full of optimism and dynamism”, political observers were well aware that “the elections mid-term partials are never necessarily easy for anyone”. government”.
But a double defeat will rattle his already anxious party, as MPs in marginal seats wonder again whether the fallout from Mr Johnson’s conduct could cost them their jobs in a general election.
All of this fuels the narrative that the prime minister is potentially fatally injured after the party and won’t be able to win back the public.
But even his opponents quietly acknowledge that these losses do not pose an immediate existential threat.
Two former cabinet ministers told me this week that the defeats are entrenched, while his success in the recent vote of confidence by Tory MPs makes it very difficult to agitate to unseat Mr Johnson for another few months.
For Labour, winning Wakefield is a necessity if the party is to hope to undo the damage of 2019 and retake seats it will need to hopefully take power at the next general election. This is Sir Keir Starmer’s 38th target seat, requiring a swing of 3.7% on current limits, so well within range.
For the Lib Dems to take Tiverton would simply be a political earthquake that would give the party confidence that it is once again becoming a serious electoral force after its post-coalition rout in the 2015 general election. Tiverton is the Lib Dems’ 167th target seat and requires a swing of 20.3% on current limits.
And for the Prime Minister, losing those two seats would still leave his government with a working majority of 75 MPs.
What he can no longer fully rely on is their loyalty and support to push his government program through parliament. The vote may have come to an end, but the internal civil war is far from resolved and the ballot box will only add to the pressure on a Prime Minister who is suffering more than the mid-term blues.
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