Tories clear favs after recent surge
Wealthy electorate favours Tories
Opposition vote remains split
Previewing the Mid Bedfordshire by-election on these pages last month, I labelled it the most unpredictable ever. Six weeks on, the market has moved all over the place and yet in truth, we really are none the wiser.
Three different favourites so far
First, lets deal with those Betfair Exchange market moves. Early exchanges saw the Lib Dems matched down to 1.251/4, implying an 80% chance of success, before drifting to a peak of 7.06/1 (14%). They remain third favourites at 5.49/2 (18%).
Labour, initially rated no-hopers at 34.033/1 (33%), usurped them as favourites at 1.9110/11 (52%). They too have since drifted, out to 2.829/5 (35%). The Conservatives, who have never lost the seat previously, are the new front-runners at 2.0811/10 (48%), having been matched earlier at 7.613/2 (13%).
Finally, the Independent candidate Gareth Mackey has completely fallen out of favour with bettors, trading at odds of 310.0309/1 after peaking earlier at 10.09/1.
Constituency polls are inconclusive
We have seen two polls, but both were commissioned by Labour, so can't really be trusted. Both pointed to a dead-heat between Labour and the Tories.
I put up several bets earlier in various pieces, laying the Lib Dems, backing Labour and Mackey - all cashed out last week for an overall profit. I'll happily admit that this race has now stumped me!
In my preview of the Tamworth By-Election, also taking place on Thursday, I discussed using a rough calculation of what share the Tories are losing in these spate of by-elections and 40% seems a decent ballpark figure. That would mirror their decline in national polls, although I'd prefer higher than lower, due to the lack of incentive for their voters to turn out at this rock-bottom moment, for a by-election.
Non-Tory vote appears divided
A 40% decline would put the Tories on 36%. Rarely enough to win a by-election, especially if a three-way contest rather than four-way if Mackey's challenge has indeed subsided.
However it might be enough if Labour and Lib Dem voters fail to tactically co-ordinate. That was precisely the message from weekend newspaper reports.
I suspect this explains the considerable gamble on the Tories in recent days - worries that Labour is not hoovering up enough defectors.
To be fair, this constituency - a wealthy foundation of the 'Blue Wall' - is really not ideal territory for the Left, and probably not appreciative of Keir Starmer's ever firmer commitment to drive through planning reform and build houses. Nimbyism might motivate some would-be Tory defectors or abstainers to turn out.
Could Tories improve without Dorries?
Another issue on my mind is some anecdotes received from locals, that departing MP Nadine Dorries was already unpopular. Could the 'real' Tory lead be higher?
This certainly is a core Tory seat and Dorries attracted much controversy long before entering government. For example, she was humiliated in a fly-on-the-wall documentary 'Tower Block of Commons', hiding money in her bra when supposed to be living off welfare.
Worse, she abandoned constituency duties to appear on I'm a Celebrity. Get Me Out of Here. We saw with other examples - Matt Hancock and Lembit Opik - that this really incurs the wrath of the public.
Very wealthy seats are safer for Tories
Consider the spate of by-elections over the past two years since the Tories begun to implode. All were disastrous with two exceptions. Recently the much-analysed Uxbridge and South Ruislip, and in early December 2021, Old Bexley and Sidcup.
The latter ranked 45th for 'Economic Right' using the electoralcalculus indicators, compared to 47th here. ABC1 class accounted for 66% and 68% of the electorate respectively. Both are labelled 'Strong Right'. Mid Beds is more socially liberal and slightly better educated, but both seats are clearly much wealthier than the average.
I'm coming around to the idea that this would have been a much better target for the Lib Dems than Labour, but the historic competition between the pair here makes co-ordination impossible.
It is very hard to see how the Lib Dems win without squeezing Labour, which isn't realistic if they are competing hard in the seat, as reported.
As noted in the earlier piece, neither party made much headway in local elections, and were usurped by Mackey's network of independents.
To conclude, after months of trying to solve this especially tricky puzzle, I'm leaning towards a Conservative hold, which can be backed at current odds of 2.111/10 on the Betfair Exchange.
If so, that will be a huge relief for Rishi Sunak. For if Labour were to win the seat (and with it, most probably Tamworth), the Prime Minister could quickly become vulnerable to a leadership challenge as such results would signal an existential threat level of defeat at the general election.
On the flipside, if the Tories do hold it due to a split opposition, it will remind Labour and the Lib Dems to redouble their efforts at tactical co-ordination. There are very few seats in the country where that plan is trickier than Mid Bedfordshire.
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