Was the Witney by-election a sign of trouble ahead for the Conservatives?

By-elections are funny things. Each one has its own unique features and circumstances. The result is often over turned at the following general election and they are soon forgotten when the media circus moves on. Witney was no exception. The seat of a former Prime Minister. A seat that voted Remain in June and one that has remained Tory for decades.

Witney provided a significant test for all the major parties. For the Conservatives, how would a Remain voting constituency of a Remain supporting Prime Minister respond to a Brexit focused Conservative party and local candidate? For Labour, could they retain second place from the general election under a  re-energised Corbyn leadership and a hugely expanded membership? For UKIP, could they make themselves relevant in a wealthy constituency without a leader and with the Tories taking most of their clothes? For the Lib Dems, could they create any impact following the disaster of 2015?

Nick Clegg alongside candidate Liz Leffman campaigning in the Witney byelection.

The result made interesting reading. The Tories held on with a hugely reduced, although secure majority. The Lib Dems moved from forth to second with one of the largest swings since 1997. Labour held on to their vote after a pretty lack lustre performance and UKIP disappeared without trace.  

What we learnt from the result is there is a significant body of voters (from all parties) who voted Remain in June who will back the candidate most likely to beat the Tory. In this case the Lib Dems who threw the kitchen sink at the campaign and quickly established themselves as the most likely challenger to the Tory candidate.  Witney, along with recent local by-elections suggest, the Lib Dems can bounce back across the south and south west when they have the resources to do so. Labour will be pretty pleased to have held their own in a unlikely constituency. UKIP look increasingly like a party that is spent in Tory facing seats but could provide a challenge in the north of England.

This article was written by Ian Thorn, Chairman of MPC.