History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes, said Mark Twain. Right now the commentariat is looking for something that will rhyme with the famous Battle of Knutsford Heath of 8 April 1997.
In that face-off, Neil Hamilton and his formidable wife Christine were ranged against the white-suited ‘anti-corruption’ independent candidate Martin Bell. Though the Hamiltons gave as good as they got for the cameras, Bell had the last laugh by comfortably winning the formerly impregnable Tory seat of Tatton in the general election held a month or so later.
With a by-election now looming in Shropshire North following the sleaze scandal that engulfed departing Tory MP Owen Paterson, leftish opinion is excitedly searching around for a new man or woman in white to pull off the same trick.
I may of course be proved wrong in due course, but this looks like entirely the wrong rhyme to me, not just because voters are far more cynical about being manipulated by the liberal left these days but also because the Tories are able to set a date for the contest that suits them — potentially months away.
So let me suggest a different date, a different place and a different rhyme. 15 November 2012 will probably not immediately set off many memories, not even for the political anoraks among you. But it should.
On that day a by-election took place in the Northamptonshire seat of Corby. Labour took it from the Tories largely as a result of Ukip candidate Margot Parker winning more than 5,000 votes. Compared to the 2010 general election, the Labour vote share was up almost ten points, the Lib Dem share down almost ten points, the Ukip share was up nearly 15 points, the Tory vote share down by 15 points. It did not take a genius to work out that both parties in the coalition government were being punished and that while Labour was scooping up disenchanted Lib Dems, disillusioned Tories were decamping to Ukip in droves.
The Corby result represented lift-off for the Purple Peril of Ukip — its best ever by-election result by far. A few weeks later the party did even better at a by-election in Rotherham and its opinion poll share hit double figures, almost entirely at the expense of the Conservatives. In late January 2013, a rattled David Cameron committed to a referendum on EU membership, afterwards explaining to his coalition partner Nick Clegg: ‘I’ve got Ukip breathing down my neck.’
So where do we find our rhyme with Corby? The answer could well be in Old Bexley and Sidcup where a by-election takes place on 2 December. It is not, as Corby was, a marginal and the Tories should hold it comfortably amid sympathy over the tragic death of much-admired James Brokenshire. But nonetheless, the conditions for the beginnings of a new revolt on the right would seem to be in place.
Following the big-spending, high-taxing Budget, amid the endless radical net zero talk by ministers at COP26 and after another dreadful week of the immigration system being trashed by cross-Channel landers, there is not much to commend the Tories to those with trenchant right-of-centre views. Yet on all these issues, Labour would serve up policies that such voters would regard as even worse.
That is where Richard Tice and his Reform UK party come in. Tice himself is standing in Old Bexley and Sidcup and the party is committing serious resources to the contest. He has already been active on the ground in the constituency, reporting in time-honoured fashion that it is ‘going well on the doors’.
Of course, they all say that and Tice and Reform did bomb badly in the big round of elections in May. But this is now a far more fruitful context in which to operate. He is already good at honing messages for those who believe the green agenda is going too far and for Thatcherites and entrepreneurs who recoil at the record tax burden. Finally, he is also getting his teeth into the migration shambles, something he has been very reluctant to engage with in the past.
And this week Tice has also skilfully scored points against the Tories on the sleaze issue too, even asking whether Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng should resign for ‘trying to bully Standards Commissioner Kathryn Stone out of her job’ and declaring it ‘truly revolting’ that ‘Owen Paterson broke multiple rules yet his Tory mates ripped up the rule book to protect him’.
If Tice is showing more bite these days, then it is probably because he understands that this by-election could be make or break for Reform. If they cannot get any traction in these circumstances in a strongly pro-Leave seat where Ukip scored an 18 per cent vote share in 2015 then the game is probably up. But if they can then their bandwagon could really start to roll, especially with senior figures in the media who share a similar political agenda now giving the party some significant favourable coverage.
A couple of recent polls have placed Reform on 5 per cent. Should it be able to ape what Ukip did off the back of Corby and hit twice that then Boris Johnson could easily find his poll lead over Labour disappearing and himself grumbling that ‘I’ve got Reform breathing down my neck’. Where Cameron had one obvious issue on which to assuage his deserting voters, Johnson would be under pressure to give ground on several. The events of recent weeks are much more likely to be a signal that the right is on the march again than that the left is.
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