Boris Johnson is desperate to avoid a by-election in Chris Pincher’s Tamworth constituency. But Labour, not surprisingly, would dearly love one.
At the December 2019 general election, Mr Pincher had an apparently rock-solid majority over Labour of 19,634, with the Liberal Democrats in a distant third place.
But after Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton, some Tory MPs fear there’s no such thing as a safe seat in a by-election any more and an unspoken Lib-Lab pact poses a serious threat.
The prime minister’s critics claim that as well as his loyalty to Mr Pincher, a close ally, his desperation to avoid a by-election was a key factor in his reluctance to boot him out of the party.
Contrast Mr Johnson’s apparent leniency towards his former deputy chief whip compared to the brutal jettisoning of Neil Parish, for what some MPs claim was the less serious offence of watching porn on his phone in the Commons.
Mr Parish is certainly bitter. “I’m still very upset about double standards in dealing with me,” he told Sky News after the PM’s U-turn when he eventually suspended Mr Pincher.
“I think he helped to organise and keep a vote of confidence in the prime minister and I think the chief whip and prime minister and everybody else was involved in trying to save Christopher Pincher, whereas Neil Parish is entirely expendable.”
Mr Parish has been backed by the Tory MP Andrew Bridgen, admittedly no friend of the PM, who is also alleging double standards. Mr Bridgen claims Mr Parish was “a very independent-minded backbencher” while Mr Pincher was “seen as an arch-loyalist”.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for someone like him to be a Member of Parliament,” said Mr Khan. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for someone like him to be in the House of Commons. I think the right thing to do is for him to resign and for there to be a by-election in his seat.”
And shadow minister Luke Pollard, speaking on LBC, said: “If you have a by-election for an MP who watched porn in the Commons, but not for MPs who’re allegedly sexually assaulting people, something seems very wrong.”
Mr Pincher is now facing an investigation by Westminster’s sleaze watchdog, the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme. If the investigation leads to him being suspended from the Commons, he could face a recall petition in his constituency, triggering a by-election.
Until the latest sleaze allegations against Mr Pincher, the Tamworth constituency has had a distinguished history. Sir Robert Peel, founder of the modern Conservative Party, was Tamworth’s MP from 1830 until 1850.
And while it may be seen as a safe Tory seat now, it was held by Labour throughout the Blair years, until Mr Pincher captured it for the Tories in 2010 with a majority of 6,090.
Since then he has gradually increased his majority, which rose to 11,302 in 2015, 12,347 in 2017 and up to nearly 20,000 in Mr Johnson’s 2019 victory.
But it’s perhaps worth recalling that Labour won a spectacular by-election victory in the constituency, then called Staffordshire South East, in 1996, a year before Mr Blair’s landslide general election victory.
The by-election was triggered by the death of another formidable Tory whip, Sir David Lightbown, a man mountain known as “the terminator” whose massive physique and no-nonsense approach struck fear into miscreant Conservative MPs.
Labour pulled off a remarkable win in the by-election with a swing of 22% against the Conservatives. Could history repeat itself? Surely not?
For a start, Labour’s poll lead over John Major’s Tories in the mid-1990s was massive compared with the party’s modest lead over Boris Johnson’s Conservatives currently.
Secondly, even Sir Keir Starmer‘s most devoted admirers would admit the current Labour leader is no Tony Blair. Harsh, but fair.
And the pollsters’ advice to Sir Keir is: forget about a repeat of 1996 in Tamworth. Chris Curtis of Opinium Research has some encouraging news for the Conservatives. “Tamworth should be an easy hold for the party,” he told the i newspaper.
“Labour would need a 21-point swing to gain it, while the Lib Dems would need a 31-point swing, both higher than in other recent by-elections. It also isn’t clear who the main opponent would be in the race, which will make anti-Tory tactical voting a lot messier.”
Back in 1996 the Conservatives accused Labour and the Liberal Democrats, then led by Paddy Ashdown, of collaboration in the by-election. Sounds familiar. Which is why Boris Johnson doesn’t want a by-election in Tamworth.