Another week, another by-election – this time in Lincolnshire, where a former sitting Tory MP, Stephen Phillips, had resigned over the government’s handling of Brexit. As soon as it was called, UKIP bigged it up as a potential by-election victory; that it would demonstrate that they have what it takes to upset the apple cart, much like what happened last week with the Lib Dems in Richmond, only in reverse.
Trot out that old cliché about a week being a long time in politics now, because the Richmond upset really does feel like a long time ago this morning. The Tories not only held the seat, they absolutely destroyed the competition, ending up with over 50% of the available vote in what was in the end a race with five serious candidates involved.
The first thing to say is that this was a very bad result for UKIP. They will spin it as a decent stab at taking a safe Tory seat, but they came nowhere close, not managing to come within 13,000 votes of the winner in an election with a total turnout of 33k. This shows more than ever what Paul Nuttall has been saying is correct: they need to focus on the north, in seats that have high numbers of traditionally Labour voters with little to no Tory vote to speak of. In Conservative facing seats, at least for the time being, UKIP have absolutely no chance.
The second thing to say is that Labour should start to seriously worry. When you are the official opposition and you come fourth in by-elections and the best your party representative can say is “we did kept our deposit”, it’s time to have a serious rethink about how the parliament is unfolding for your side. Two back to back by-elections in which Labour’s vote got squeezed because of their middle of the road approach to Brexit, what is now the defining issue of the times, demonstrates just how much worse things could get for Corbyn’s crew. I’m seriously starting to think that my prediction of Labour down to 100 seats after the next general election might be too optimistic from a Labour perspective.
For the Lib Dems, they got to see what running as the only explicitly Remain party in a heavily Leave constituency would get them. Answer: not much. This is intuitive in retrospect, and it is clear that the Lib Dems will almost certainly struggle anywhere that voted heavily to Leave in June for the foreseeable future.
The real signal from this by-election however was that Leavers are still very much on Theresa May’s side, sure she is serious about pushing Brexit through and making a success of it. This may change over time, but for now Leavers are very much willing her on – and UKIP’s “betrayal” narrative is getting no cut through in places such as Sleaford.