Sir John Curtice issues dire warning to Rishi Sunak ahead of pivotal triple by-election

Sir John Curtice issues dire warning to Rishi Sunak ahead of pivotal triple by-election

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during a visit to Mulberry School for Girls in east London on Monday July 17, 2023.

Sam Montgomery

By Sam Montgomery

Published: 19/07/2023

- 22:25

Polling guru warns that a clean-sweep of by-election losses would land Conservatives in “deep electoral” trouble

Professor Sir John Curtice has reminded the Tories, who are behind Labour by double digits in the national polls, that by-election embarrassment could spell the end of their reign.

The leading pollster admitted that it was difficult to predict the outcomes of votes in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, Selby and Ainsty, and Somerton and Frome.

However, Sir John warned that the by-elections could be the death knell of the Tories, comparable to the Conservatives in 1997 in the run up to Labour’s landslide general election victory.

Prof Sir John told the Express: "By-elections predict no more than opinion polls do at this point in time. What they can help give an indication of is where we're at at the moment.

Professor Sir John Curtice after receiving his Knighthood for services to the Social Sciences and Politics, from Queen Elizabeth II during an Investiture ceremony at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh.


"So it's perfectly clear for example the three by-elections that have happened since Liz Truss's demise are consistent with the evidence of the opinion polls that the Labour Party is much more popular relative to the Conservatives now than it was at any previous point in this Parliament.

"If the Tories lose all three seats it will confirm that indeed the Tories are at the moment in deep electoral trouble.

"We can point to the fact that the last time the Tories were this behind in the polls and the last time that the Tories suffered swings of the kind that would be required to lose, particularly Selby, is before the 1997 general election.

"So we can certainly say that precedent suggests that the Tories have a very difficult situation to recover from that, but history is never guaranteed to repeat itself."

The best case scenario for the Tories would be losing just one seat, Sir John mused.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (right) with Tata Sons Chairman, Natarajan Chandrasekaran view a battery cell during his visit to Jaguar Land Rover in Warwickshire on Wednesday July 19, 2023.


He said: "I think three Tory holds would be improbable. Only one loss is perhaps the best they could reasonably hope for and given the expectations that have been generated.

He added: "It could be three Tory losses but there's no guarantee that it's going to be three Tory losses.”

Sir John said it was Labour’s election to lose in Boris Johnson's old seat in west London, but pointed to the fury at Sadiq Khan's expansion of the ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) as a potential thorn in their side.

He said: "The 7.5 percent swing that's required in Uxbridge is only half the swing from Conservative to Labour currently being registered by the opinion polls.

"It is also somewhat less than the swing that Labour got in the three by-elections since the demise of Liz Truss. All of those were in safe Labour seats which would therefore mean to swing was probably lower than you would have got elsewhere.

Peter Smorthit campaigning on behalf of Piers Corbyn who is standing for election in the Uxbridge by-election on Thursday


"Frankly Uxbridge ought to go Labour. Of course, there's the row about ULEZ but even so given the national polls Uxbridge I would have said is something that Labour ought to win."

Sir John said that it is not preposterous to believe that the Tories might hang on to Selby and Ainsty in North Yorkshire.

He said: "Selby requires somewhat more than the national swing, it requires about an 18 percent swing. We do sometimes get swings well above the national polls in by-elections and we did have three by-elections before 1997 that Labour picked up on a swing of more than 20 percent.

"But it is a pretty safe Tory seat. I think Labour has never managed to gain a seat from the Tories in a by-election starting from so far behind.

"But the national swing is 15 percent. The Tory position has weakened since the middle of June since the Boris Johnson Privileges Committee report and the failure of the Conservative Party to distance itself from Johnson.

General view of Selby and Selby Abbey, North Yorkshire, ahead of the Selby and Ainsty by-election on July 20, called following the resignation of incumbent MP Nigel Adams.


"The one poll we had, for what it's worth, showed a substantial collapse in the Tory vote. So Selby I would imagine will be at best a close Tory win and it may well be the Tories hang onto it.

"Frankly even the Tories only hang on to it narrowly it won't necessarily tell you that it's some disaster for Labour."

Lastly, Sir John said there is no guarantees over Somerset and Frome, with the Liberal Democrats needing to put in a shift to overturn a 20,000 majority.

He said: "Somerton and Frome all we are really guessing is that one this is an area with a long-running Liberal Democrat slash liberal vote.

"The Liberal Democrats managed to hang onto albeit very narrowly between 1997 and 2010.

"We've seen what's happen in other by-elections and obviously the one closest to this was the Tiverton one in this Parliament where the Liberal Democrats are the obvious challenges and we're going well given what happened in Tiverton and given what happened in North Shropshire maybe the Lib Dems will get it.

"But no guarantees. It's never ever been more than a very marginal Lib Dem seat and the Lib Dems are still not doing very much in the national opinion polls."

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