The Conservatives have held the safe seat of Old Bexley and Sidcup in the first in a series of closely watched parliamentary byelections.
Louie French was elected as the new MP, replacing the well-liked former cabinet minister James Brokenshire, who died in October after suffering lung cancer. After a relatively short campaign, Mr French won 11,189 votes - ahead of the closest challenger, Labour’s Daniel Francis, who got 6,711.
The result saw the Tories’ majority in the 2019 general election of nearly 19,000 slashed to just 4,478 - but given turnout was deemed to be low, at 34 per cent, the vote share will be pored over more closely.
Votes for the Conservative candidate were down 13.06 per cent from the last election, while Labour saw their share rise by 7.4 per cent. Richard Tice, who stood for Reform UK, secured a first time vote share of 6.59 per cent.
Mr French paid tribute to his “good friend” Mr Brokenshire and said it was a “huge honour” to wear his former colleague’s blue rosette.
It was a “tough contest fought with dignity and respect”, he added, vowing that as a new MP he would “work with the government” to deliver on voters’ priorities - name-checking protecting green spaces, as well as improving school and hospital services and standing up to London’s Labour mayor, Sadiq Khan.
Mr French called his election to parliament “the greatest honour of my life”, and thanked his family, supporters and the Conservative party, vowing to “work tirelessly to repay the trust you put in me”.
Mr Francis said after the result that if a similar rise in the share of the vote for Labour were seen at a general election, “a very large number of Conservative MPs would be losing their seats”.
“We’re on a path back to government,” he said of his party.
Voters began to mention more towards the end of the campaign “the sleaze that surrounds the prime minister and his competence”, Mr Francis said.
“That’s really been shown tonight in the number of Conservatives that have either stayed at home or switched across to us that we’ve seen in the swing.”
Although the south London constituency has been blue since 1950 and was represented by former Tory prime minister Ted Heath in the House of Commons, the result will help calm jitters within the party about Boris Johnson’s leadership.
Some Tory voters who spoke to the Guardian during the campaign voiced dissatisfaction with the prime minister’s leadership - particularly in the wake of a damaging sleaze scandal.
Other Conservative canvassers and aides reported hearing similar frustrations from some people who normally backed the party, in the run-up to the first byelection to be held in London since Mr Johnson romped to victory in the 2019 general election.
Labour insiders had played down the prospect of a shock result like that seen in Chesham and Amersham in June - when the Liberal Democrats took the seat from the Conservatives - even though governments are traditionally punished at midterm byelections.
Labour had sought to get the Conservatives’ vote share under 50 per cent, but failed to do so and effectively conceded within minutes of the count getting under way.
Patience wearing thin
Ellie Reeves, the shadow solicitor general and MP for Lewisham West and Penge, said it had “always been a safe Tory seat and we don’t expect that to change”. She added that voters’ patience was wearing thin with Mr Johnson, but that “to win this was never within reach for us”.
Labour leader Keir Starmer has been bolstered by a recent levelling off in the national polls, seeing Labour equalise with the Conservatives for the first time since the start of the year.
The result in Old Bexley and Sidcup will ease immediate pressure on Mr Johnson; however, there are further byelections to follow. Later in December, the Tories will try to hold North Shropshire - a seat vacated by Owen Paterson after the former MP was found to have committed an egregious breach of paid lobbying rules.
A byelection will also be held in Southend West after the murder of its Sir David Amess. However, the Conservatives are expected to be the only major party to contest it as Labour and the Liberal Democrats plan not to field a candidate out of respect. – Guardian