The people of Tiverton and Honiton find themselves in a somewhat unusual situation this week. This rural Devon constituency has never staged a close election or been forecast to do so, let alone one that garners lots of national headlines. Suddenly, it is swamped with party activists and journalists, and rightly so. For the result here on Thursday could have profound implications for UK politics.
Johnson facing double disaster
The last time a sitting government lost two by-elections on the same night was John Major's administration, 31 years ago. The signals from Betfair markets indicate Boris Johnson will emulate that disaster. Labour are rated 99% likely to gain the marginal seat of Wakefield, whilst the Lib Dems' implied probability of winning here is 70%, at odds of 1.42/5.
If those odds prove correct, Boris Johnson may well be entering his final few weeks in office. Since his uncomfortably close 211-148 confidence vote victory, the odds about a 2022 exit have been stable around 3.55/2 (28%). Losing Tiverton and Honiton is sure to spark further, louder calls for his removal or resignation and most likely for those odds to crash again.
Lib Dems need another enormous swing
To understand the scale of the Lib Dem task here, consider recent elections. In 2019, Neil Parish won 60% of the vote for the Tories. More than 40% ahead of Labour in second and 45% of the Lib Dems in third. That was his fourth consecutive win and the closest any rival came was within 17%.
Parish is no longer on the ballot, having famously resigned after admitting watching porn in Parliament whilst allegedly searching for tractors. By all reports, he was well liked in the local farming community so perhaps a personal following slightly enhanced those Tory wins. The longer story, though, tells us this is a rock-solid safe Tory seat. Less the 'Blue Wall' than the foundations.
Between 1997 and 2005, Labour held big majorities and the Tories were at their lowest ebb. Across the South-West, the Lib Dems invariably monopolised the anti-Tory vote and frequently won. Not here. They came within 2,000 in 1997 but by 2001, while little changed nationally, their majority had grown beyond 6,000 and 11,000 by 2005.
Lib Dems campaigning harder than ever
Notably the Lib Dems never truly squeezed the Labour vote here as elsewhere in the region. That likely reflects lack of campaigning strength and demonstrates that it was never one of their top targets. Both age and house prices are comfortably higher than the national average. Rural seats like this simply aren't competitive. Or at least they weren't.
In 2021, they are throwing everything at it, with good reason.
Last year, they pulled off two similarly remarkable upsets in by-elections, producing swings against the Tories bigger than the 22.8% swing required in Tiverton and Honiton.
Required swing is lower than recent gains
North Shropshire was also an ultra-safe Tory seat with no history of being competitive. The Lib Dems took it on a 34.1%. Earlier they produced a 25.2% swing to gain Chesham and Amersham - at a time, pre-Partygate, when the Tories were in a much better position nationally.
Indeed 2021 was a year to treat by-election betting and predictions with great caution. The odds moved all over the place and results were being badly misjudged just minutes before being announced. Results were mixed for the other parties but for the Lib Dems, those two wins heralded a return to their best days as Britain's by-election specialists.
It should come as no surprise to find the five biggest turnarounds to gain by-elections since WW2 were all achieved by the Lib Dems.
They flood an area with yellow activists, newsletters and posters. In contrast to the Tories and Labour, they thrive at picking up mid-term protest votes. There is no suggestion this seat will be marginal at the next election. But mid-term, anywhere is within range.
Ex-army candidate is a smart move
They are making the right moves, too. Their candidate is an ex-army major from the area. Any Tory lines about the Lib Dems being part of a 'left-wing alliance' is unlikely to work in the case of Richard Foord. Nor Stuart Roberts, the former deputy head of the National Farmers Union. Once a Tory councillor, he's joined the Lib Dems and is campaigning with Foord.
They are wisely seeking to capitalise on serious disillusionment within rural, farming communities. In addition to the wider cost of living issues and of course, Partygate, there is deep anger and concern among many losers from Brexit. A recent poll of rural voters showed the Tories just 2% up on Labour, equivalent to a 7.5% swing. May's local elections were a disaster in such areas for the Tories.
Beware internal Lib Dem polls
When the betting opened, the Lib Dems were heavily gambled into 1.152/13 but that move has dissipated of late. This morning they're out to 1.42/5. That may be in response to the latest 'internal Lib Dem polling', which records a tie. My advice would be to completely ignore such unreliable, unweighted polls. In North Shropshire they claimed the Tories were double-digits ahead before they lost by double-digits.
Nevertheless, I do think the earlier odds about the Lib Dems were unappealingly short. Because the scale of the task is so big and because the Tories seem to have improved their operation since those 2021 by-election disasters. Picking a local candidate in Helen Hurford is a lot smarter than the North Shropshire plan, where a Birmingham lawyer stood, openly admitting he needed to learn about the area.
Hurford's campaign literature is notably shorn of references to Boris Johnson. But as these local hustings illustrate, no Tory candidate can truly hide from the never-ending swirl of scandal and controversy surrounding the PM.
If the Tories win this, it will give Johnson a boost and maybe extend his time in office for another year or so. However I don't believe he will. Ahead of every recent electoral test for the Tories, forecasters including myself have baulked from making extreme predictions of doom, only for the outcomes to be worse. Nowhere near enough attention was paid to the scale of disaster in the local elections - 487 seat losses when psephologists expected 300 at maximum.
This election may be for Westminster, but the dynamics are similar. A chance to kick an unpopular government, at the height of their woes, with the relatively vanilla Lib Dems as the weapon as opposed to the Tories' bitter enemies in Labour. My prediction is the Lib Dems to win this, without any need for a recount. By a majority in excess of 2,000. Then, watch more knives come out for Johnson.
Follow Paul on Twitter and check out his website, Political Gambler.
Tiverton and Honiton By-Election
Boris Johnson Exit Date (Year)
Boris Johnson Special (Conference)