THURSDAY’S by-elections were dreadful for Rishi Sunak. The swing to Labour in Selby and Ainsty was 28 per cent and 24 per cent to the Lib Dems in Somerset and Frome. Gaining Selby sets a record for the size of majority overturned by Labour at a by-election, 20,137 easily beating the 14,654-vote gap they overcame in Mid Staffordshire more than 30 years ago.
Conservatives would prefer to focus on retaining Boris Johnson’s former seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip. The swing to Labour of 6.7 per cent was not enough, with the Tories winning by 500 votes. But this result had nothing to do with Sunak and everything to do with the hated expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) proposed by Labour’s London Mayor Sadiq Khan, which is due to come into force in Uxbridge and the rest of outer London on August 29.
Losing the seat would have been relatively easy for the Conservatives to explain away. They could have blamed the toxicity from Johnson’s fall. However, the Tories ran a campaign that ignored Sunak’s five pledges (no, I can’t remember them either) and successfully turned the election into a referendum on ULEZ expansion. Steve Tuckwell, the winning Conservative candidate, acknowledged this in his victory speech. Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said ‘there is no getting away from’ the fact that ULEZ was ‘the major issue’.
The by-elections have signalled that the Conservatives are extremely unlikely to win the next general election, at least with Sunak as leader. He was supposed to bring calmness to government after the high drama of Johnson and Truss, but has brought only mediocrity and quiet drift toward electoral annihilation. His personal approval rating is nearly twice as negative as Keir Starmer’s and the Conservative Party’s standing is way behind where it was at the end of Johnson’s premiership.
However, the Uxbridge result should make the Conservatives favourites to win the London Mayoral elections next year. The second-preference voting system from 2021 has been replaced with first-past-the-post, giving Sadiq Khan lots to worry about; last time he was less than five percentage points head of Conservative candidate Shaun Bailey on first-preference votes. Conservative mayoral candidate Susan Hall must have been delighted to hear Sadiq Khan declared that he is ‘determined’ to continue with the ULEZ expansion, despite the by-election result.
There will be much rejoicing if the ULEZ expansion costs him his job. As I’ve written previously, it will do virtually nothing to reduce pollution levels but will raise money to fill Transport for London’s depleted coffers and pave the way for road pricing in London. So unpopular is the planned ULEZ expansion that Transport for London refuse to disclose the location of ULEZ cameras for fear of them being vandalised (well over 200 have been damaged so far).
There were portents of the Uxbridge result if one looked. In Cambridge, the Labour council were pushing ahead with a £5 congestion charge for vehicles entering the city, despite 58 per cent opposition to the charge during the formal consultation. In June, Labour lost a by-election in the King’s Hedges ward to the Conservatives, who campaigned on an anti-congestion-charge platform. The Tories now have one seat on the city council, a remarkable enough achievement in a strongly left-wing university town. Last year, the Conservative council in Canterbury introduced plans for dividing the city into five zones with car travel between them severely limited. In this year’s May council elections they lost so many seats (including that of their leader) that the Tories are now only the third-biggest party on Canterbury Council.
Uxbridge, Cambridge and Canterbury are warnings that the electorate doesn’t want Net Zero-inspired anti-car policies. They know that they are an environmental smokescreen for further taxes on motorists. The penny is starting to drop that the panoply of anti-car policies (congestion charges, low emission zones, low traffic neighbourhood, 15-minute cities) are a direct consequence of the drive to Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050. As the bans on the sale of new internal-combustion-engine cars in 2030 and on new domestic gas boiler installations in 2035 come ever closer, more people will realise that the policies needed to get anywhere near Net Zero will massively diminish the quality of their lives, and they’re prepared to vote out politicians who try implement such measures. How long before our rulers realise that their own careers will be a price to pay for trying to achieve Net Zero?