Tory MPs had been predicting a bout of Labour infighting after the Batley and Spen contest, which the governing party had been expected to win. Instead Labour held on, albeit with a much reduced majority. Within hours Tory MPs had rounded on the former health secretary, who resigned last weekend admitting he had broken coronavirus guidelines by kissing his aide in his Whitehall office.
One Conservative MP who campaigned in the West Yorkshire constituency in recent weeks said: “Without Hancock we would have won it.” Another said that with such a small number of votes separating the parties “it must have done it”.
Just 48 hours after Boris Johnson dismissed the furore as a Westminster bubble issue, his party’s co-chairwoman Amanda Milling admitted it had come up on the doorsteps in Batley and Spen. Voters “had some issues” after Mr Hancock’s affair was exposed, she conceded.
But she refused to be drawn on whether the prime minister’s handling of the issue, which allowed Mr Hancock to remain in post for 24 hours before eventually bowing to the inevitable, had gone down badly in the seat.
Tory MPs also played down the idea that Mr Hancock could be deselected from standing as a Conservative at the next election. “That’s a matter for him and his association. But it is rare that an MP annoys his association so much he is deselected,” one said.
Others warned that Mr Hancock was far from the only problem with the party’s campaign. They accused the candidate and the party of standing back while former Labour MP George Galloway attacked the Labour candidate, Kim Leadbeater, allowing both to soak up most of the publicity in the contest.
Others warned that despite a stunning victory in the Hartlepool by-election in May, the party faced a series of longer-term problems. These include the waning of the “vaccine bounce” effect, seen in polls after voters received their Covid jabs for the first time, and fatigue with a Conservative Party that has now been in power for more than a decade.
Tory MPs are nervous after the party also lost the Chesham and Amersham by-election last month, after a backlash from voters, some of whom argued the Tories had been taking them for granted.
The loss came just weeks after they were buoyed by a shock defeat over Labour in the “red wall” seat of Hartlepool.
Conservative peer and polling expert Lord Hayward told Times Radio the results of the three by-elections showed politics was currently in an “incredibly fluid state”. “In the UK at the moment people are willing to listen, hear different arguments, and then make a decision. We are probably also coming to the end of what we might describe as the Covid era. And also Brexit has less and less influence. So we could be, although very fluid in terms of people’s willingness to vote for different parties, moving into a more normal period probably,” he said.
Sir Keir hailed the result as a “very important moment” which showed that Labour was “back”. Following accusations from some of his own MPs that voters do not know what he stands for, he vowed the public would see more of him this summer.
He told journalists that the coronavirus crisis had made it difficult for him to set out Labour’s plans for the future of the UK. But “as we come out of the pandemic ... the space finally opens up for me to make the argument,” he said, “…that’s what I will be doing in the summer and into conference … [talking] about health and social care and education and work,” he said.
Mr Johnson said Conservative Ryan Stephenson fought an “incredibly positive campaign” and “all things considered did very well to reduce a longstanding Labour majority several decades old to only 323”.
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