Significant by-elections

The impact of by-elections is usually fleeting however extraordinary the result and the victory of Conservative candidate Trudy Harrison in a seat Labour has held since 1935 by more than 2,000 votes may indeed soon be forgotten. Its significance is in confirming the reality of UK politics since the 2015 general election. This was not only a judgement on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership but on the state of the Labour Party as a whole. What it showed is that the Tories are for now the only game in town and Theresa May is able to reach out beyond traditional Conservative heartlands to people who regard themselves as traditional Labour voters. This should terrify the Labour leadership as much as Tony Blair’s success in middle England in 1997 scared the Tories.

The Stoke by-election which saw Labour retain the seat had its own significance in seeing off a UKIP threat to Labour’s northern base. But the win will do little to cheer up Labour MPs who know that taken together, last night’s by-elections presage a likely catastrophic general election defeat in 2020. Despite a poor candidate, UKIP’s vote held up and it is too early to sign the death certificate.

Brexit aftermath

The Brexit vote has split Labour and largely united the Tories – at least for the time being. There are deep divisions on how to deal with Brexit and how to reconcile the pro-immigration attitudes of Labour’s metropolitan voters with the hostility of those in places such as Stoke and Copeland. Tony Blair’s speech calling for a campaign for a second referendum to reverse last year’s decision will not have helped the party reconcile these competing views but divisions on Europe merely reflect Labour’s wider problems of poor leadership and division.

Lasting impact

Disastrous though the by-elections were for Labour, there is unlikely to be any change to Labour’s leadership. Other Labour MPs may well follow Copeland’s Jamie Reed and Stoke’s Tristram Hunt in securing more secure employment outside parliament and therefore precipitating further problematic by-elections. MPs with even safe majorities will worry about the May appeal to Labour voters. But buoyed by continuing grassroots support, Jeremy Corbyn will plough on either to a 2020 election defeat or, if he can change the party’s rules, retire in favour of an anointed left wing successor.

For Theresa May’s government, the effect of last night’s results will be psychological. Weak oppositions strengthen governments’ self-confidence and authority. But they can also give rise to swagger and hubris. They are about to have a Budget with little good news for voters weary of seven years of austerity, followed immediately by the letter invoking Article 50 which will be sent without any clear idea of what the outcome is likely to be. Theresa May is entitled to enjoy her Copeland triumph. But in the much bigger challenge of reaching 2020 with her party and government intact, it is but a sideshow