Mid Bedfordshire loss a new low
Tactical voting points to 200+ losses
Sunak could soon be vulnerable
By general consensus, last week's by-election defeats represented a new low for the Conservatives. They may well regain Mid Bedfordshire and Tamworth at the general election, but both seats are way beyond what Labour need to win an overall majority, let alone to form the next government.
The reaction on Betfair markets was predictable. Labour are now rated 86% likely to win Most Seats at odds of 1.152/13, 73% for an Overall Majority at 1.364/11. If anything they look underestimates, with the price holding up because bettors are reluctant to tie money up until the election, which could be as late as January 2025. These by-election disasters are consistent with national opinion polls, which are themselves consistent.
Could Sunak be replaced?
The press report a party in disarray, panicked and demoralised. Having served a year in office, Rishi Sunak is now vulnerable to a leadership challenge. Letters are being sent to the 1922 Committee and a confidence vote is looking ever more likely. Betfair opened a new market yesterday on whether he will survive as leader until the election.
It seems incredible that the Tories can think of ditching a third leader within the same parliament. That will doubtless deter some bettors from backing Sunak to go. I'm not so sure. After all, what is there to lose? Their current position is catastrophic with no sign of turning.
Remember how divisive recent years have been. Two factions emerged at the top of government, led by Sunak and Boris Johnson. (Liz Truss supporters were originally in the Johnson camp.)
No love is lost. Team Johnson believe he was the victim of a coup, via the drip-feeding of Partygate footage to the media. Indefensible as his position was, I regard any other explanation as naive. Ditto the never explained leaking of footage from a reversed camera in Matt Hancock's office, which killed that potential leadership rival.
Thus, there are plenty of Tory MPs itching for revenge. To remove him, they must convert dozens more to the cause but, given the party's dire performance under this leader, that is possible. The ruthlessness of Tory MPs should never be underestimated.
Watch this emerging scandal
With remarkably convenient timing, a means of destabilising the PM may have arrived. Harry Cole of The Sun - a journalist who was hyping Johnson's comeback a year ago - has learned that the phone Sunak claimed could not be accessed for the WhatsApp messages demanded by the COVID Inquiry, is still in use. Watch this space.
200 plus losses projected
Were the swings at those by-elections repeated, the Tories would be reduced to fewer than 100 seats. Be wary. Turnout at a general election is less differential, more balanced. Labour will need many more than 13,872 votes to win Mid Bedfordshire and will devote their resources to more winnable targets.
So what level of defeat are we looking at? In our Tory Losses market, 201 or more is priced around 3.02/1 (33%). They won 365 in 2019 so anything under 165 would be a winner. Note the next election will be under new boundaries, for which I shall refer to the electoralcalculus figures. They estimate the Tories 'start' on the revised tally of 376.
Their current prediction is 159, but also estimate a low point of just 60, and a high of 266. Even if they were to hit the latter, Labour would form the next government due to their vastly superior ability to find coalition partners.
Of course, there are all sorts of variables to consider, and things that can change. These numbers are based on the Tories achieving 26.8% - an extremely low, historically unprecedented estimate. It assumes no recovery whatsoever.
Tactical voting means further losses
However if that points to a greater upside for the Tories, the high potential for tactical voting is a downside. Electoralcalculus also created a tactical voting model, which puts them down to 124.
What of the recovery potential? Governments tend to improve nearer to polling day as voters take a closer look at the alternatives. As it stands, the right-wing vote is split with ReformUK. The Tories could squeeze that segment, or even do a deal as they did with Nigel Farage and Richard Tice's previous vehicle, the Brexit Party.
2019 coalition hard to recreate
I must caution against taking this for granted. I have argued on these pages that the 2019 'Brexit Coalition' was unsustainable. So it is proving, to critical effect in Tamworth, where Reform, UKIP and Britain First accumulated 1026 more votes than Labour's winning margin.
Do not assume those voters will be won back. Prior to 2019, there was always a small segment of far-Right voters, supporting various small parties. In that unique election, with Brexit on the ballot, Boris Johnson managed to hoover them up. They are not natural Tories. Indeed, many in that new coalition are unreliable general election voters, but who turned out in the EU referendum and 2019.
The polling models most favourable to the Tories, such as Opinium, revert voters currently in the don't know column to their 2019 choices. Research from Survation, however, shows Labour winning half of these 2019 Tories.
As things stand, I wouldn't bet a penny on a Tory comeback. The tectonic plates of British politics have shifted and, rather than pursue a pragmatic, damage limitation course, the Tories seem more divided, extreme and chaotic than ever. There will be more scandals, by-election disasters to come and perhaps another leadership farce.
I've taken 3.052/1 about them losing the 201 or more.
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