Friday, 21st July, 2023

[Day 1222]

Today, or even the wee small hours of the morning, was when the results of the three by-elections held on Thursday would be announced. Initially, it was said that the results would not be announced until about 3.00am which then become 4.00am so having watched the initial part of the panel discussions, I resolved to make myself a cup of cocoa and then go to bed. Then, much earlier than anticipated, the results of Somerton and Frome were announced quite a lot earlier than anticipated. The Liberal Democrats announced at the start of the evening that they had won this seat and, indeed, they took it with a large majority. But their candidate was a local woman, a farmer’s daughter and local councillor who had been acting almost as a ‘de facto’ MP in the absence of the disgraced Tory who held the seat so it was no real surprise that the Liberal Democrats resumed their traditional presence in the South West of England. For the Lib Dems, winning Somerton and Frome is their fourth consecutive by-election win this parliament, a feat not achieved since the days of Paddy Ashdown in 1992-1997. It has given the Lib Dems belief that they can rebuild in the West Country, having been nearly wiped out by the Tories after five years of coalition government in 2015. And then, shortly after this result, the ex-Boris Johnson seat was announced (Uxbridge and South Ruislip) and this was quite a surprise as the Tories held onto the seat with a majority cut from 7,000 plus to 500. But the result became a lot less surprising when one was appraised of the back story. Apparently, the whole of the by-election campaign was dominated by one local issue which was the implementaion of the ULEZ (Ultra Low Emission Zone) charge, affecting all motorists except those with totally electric cars, and costing motorists a £12.50 daily charge. This charge has become deeply unpopular, even though it is an extension of the policy for inner London first introduced by Boris Johnson. But central London has the Tube and fiendish car parking charges which between them serve to deter motorists using their car in central London but the outer suburbs are a different matter altogether. All of this presents quite a dilemma for the Labour Party as supposedly marginal outer London seats may be ‘saved’ for the Tories by the unpopularity of the ULEZ charge associated with the Labour major of London, Sadiq Kahn. To my mind, though, this problem is easily solved with a modicum of political intelligence. Acknowledge that motorists need a period of transition (say 7 years) to adapt to the new zone and then have a heavy subsidy in the initial years tapering to practically no subsidy in seven years time. In the meantime, many of the older cars will have been traded in for electric alternatives and then in seven years, the problem will have resolved itself and no more expenses will have been incurred. It is just possible that the Labour party is starting to think today about such a ‘solution’ as the shadow Attorney General, Emily Thornberry herself a London MP, is already calling for a rethink. After all of this excitement, I dozed a little until the result of the Selby and Ainsty result came through just after 4.00pm. This turned out to be quite a stunning scalp for the Labour party because I intially thought it might be a very marginal victory – in the event, a majority of more than 20,000 was turned into a win by more than 4,000 and this, the Labour party is claiming, is the largest majority ever overturned by the Labour Party in its history. In addition, the new MP is only 25 and the ‘baby of the house’ which is generating some snide remarks by some on the Tory benches. But an an alternative commentary is made that the youngest MPs are often those who have made quite a profound contribution to the House of Commons and a young Charles Kennedy comes to mind. In the end, this Yorkshire result may well turn out to be much the most significant result of the three by-elections and probably the one of the three that has the most predictive ability for the forthcoming general election. Selby is the Conservatives’ 249th most vulnerable seat and losing in a rural Tory stronghold like this will make Tories with majorities of 15,000 feel very unsure.

More political news is that the report that technical experts have now recovered the messages on Boris Johnson’s discarded mobile phone. But although all of the relevant messages have now been recovered, it is the case that a ‘security check of this material’ was now required by the government, so ‘the timing of any further progress on delivery to the inquiry is therefore under the Cabinet Office control’. So one suspects that there may be be some back office skulduggery before the complete set of messages is handed over to the COVID enquiry who had demanded this material in the first place. We may now be entering a politics free zone for the next few weeks as Parliament will be in recess, the politicians will be off to their favourite holiday haunts and the rest of the political system will remain in the hands of duty ministers who have to hold the fort in case a crisis blows up in the meantime.