U.K. Tories Blame Hancock for Halting Boris Johnson’s March

After two years as British Prime Minister, in which he has won a succession of stunning election victories against the opposition Labour Party, Boris Johnson’s unstoppable march suddenly stopped.

The Conservative Party hierarchy blamed a recent scandal that forced the resignation of Matt Hancock as health secretary for its failure to win the northern English district of Batley and Spen in a special by-election held on Thursday.

Labour Leader Keir Starmer, meanwhile, hailed his party’s victory as proof that his leadership is delivering at last, after weeks of pressure over his own uninspiring performances and mounting electoral losses.

The truth is that neither leader can take much comfort from a result like this. The Tories were expected to win easily but failed, raising the prospect that so-called sleaze allegations that have swirled around the government for months may finally have registered with voters.

“A whole range of issues came up on the doorstep. But you know, I’ve got to be honest, it did come up at the weekend,” Tory chair Amanda Milling told Times Radio on Friday, when asked if the party had suffered as a result of the Hancock scandal, in which the minister was caught kissing an aide in his office in breach of pandemic rules.

Scraping Home

Labour meanwhile barely scraped home, holding the seat by just 323 votes. For Starmer to celebrate that as a “fantastic” win shows how bad things are for his party.

In May, Labour lost by a wide margin in Hartlepool, a northeastern English seat they had held since it was first created in 1974. Then in Chesham and Amersham last month, Starmer’s side won just 622 votes – less than 2% of the total – as the Liberal Democrats seized what had been a Tory stronghold.

“It is a start -- Labour is back,” Starmer said Friday as he celebrated in Batley and Spen alongside the winning candidate, Kim Leadbeater. “I want many more days like this. Labour is coming home.”

Labour members of Parliament know they have a huge task ahead to make inroads into Johnson’s 80-seat majority at the next general election. One backbencher – a supporter of Starmer -- told Bloomberg that the win only partially eases the pressure on the leader, who has faced speculation that he could be ousted.

“Labour have done better than expected against a measure of catastrophic defeat -- but it doesn’t mean they are doing well,” said Mark Wickham-Jones, a political science professor at the University of Bristol. “Labour still have a lot of seats they need to win and the Conservatives are in a position to build on that 80-seat majority.”

Conservative Members of Parliament were largely sanguine about this week’s defeat in a seat that’s been held by Labour for 24 years.

Tory Party Vice-Chairman Andrew Bowie argued that while the win in the Hartlepool district election in May had “raised expectations” of a repeat in Batley and Spen, the Conservatives “did very well to come as close as we did.”

Yet Friday’s result is the second bad one for Johnson in as many weeks, after the Tories lost the previously safe seat of Chesham and Amersham.

Johnson was picked as leader because he was a proven winner, having triumphed twice as London Mayor, and once in the 2016 Brexit referendum. While these isolated failures don’t add up to a coherent national pattern, he won’t last long as Conservative leader if his winning ways desert him.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.