Education, health and partygate: The issues that seemed to floor the Tories in Tiverton

The by-election results have further undermined Boris Johnson's leadership of the Conservative party. Credit: PA

The Conservatives have known for some time that they would lose Wakefield, and that something really bad was happening for them in Tiverton & Honiton. On June 10, a senior Tory source messaged me to say a tweet from the Telegraph's Christopher Hope - suggesting a 5,000 Lib Dem majority in the Devon constituency - was "possible". Then a week ago, on the day that Boris Johnson was due to visit Wakefield and then address northern Tory MPs (when he instead went to Kyiv to meet president Zelenskyy), they said Wakefield would be a normal mid-term by-election loss but "Tiverton is much worse". By yesterday, they were deeply pessimistic. "We've definitely lost both. Tiverton by a significant amount."

I've been in the south-west to see the results in so let me focus in on that seat.

Last night, a Tory said to me the doorsteps yesterday were dreadful, while Lib Dems sounded like they almost couldn't believe the response they were getting. And I saw it too - random people on the street approaching their candidate, Richard Foord, to say they were deserting the Tories for the first time ever.

So, what happened? A senior Lib Dem described how the party has flooded the constituency, culminating yesterday in around 400 activists taking to the streets, leafleting almost every home, and speaking to 20,000 residents. Their conclusion is that three issues dominated this election: firstly, Tiverton High School's desperate need for new buildings; secondly a dearth of NHS dentists; and then partygate. They didn't mention Brexit or the former MP - Neil Parish - who quit after watching porn in the House of Commons and who I'll come back to. On the school - the problem - and I saw it myself - is buildings that are falling into disrepair.

The headteacher took me to the English department to chat, and to show me huge holes in the ceiling that had not been filled in.

They were promised new buildings in 2009 but years of begging the Department for Education (with the support of the local Tory MP and all candidates in this by-election) haven't managed to secure the funding. A local parent - Adam Wishart - who has led a non-partisan campaign on this issue, said that there was a sense of politics being involved.

He pointed to funding decisions seeming to rarely go the way of south-west constituencies, saying some felt attention had shifted to the North and Midlands, while safe seats like Tiverton & Honiton felt somewhat neglected. I wonder if that feeling is a little more widespread in the southwest. Yesterday, YouGov's Patrick English did some exclusive analysis for ITV's Peston in which he said the Conservatives had suffered a 20 point hit in the polls in this area.

The Liberal Democrats' by-election candidate Richard Foord (right) and the Conservative by-election candidate Helen Hurford (left). Credit: PA

The second issue - NHS dentistry- rings a bit of a bell to North Shropshire, another by-election defeat for Conservatives where health dominated - with worries about ambulances and GPs. As for partygate, it was very obvious yesterday, walking around the constituency that it had caused a huge slump in trust among voters.

One lifelong Tory told me that he wouldn't "join the bandwagon" and call anyone a liar, but there were big questions around honesty and he could not vote for the current government. Even Paul Wakefield, who has been a member of the Tories for 25 years, was almost moved to tears as he described having to shield and missing his own mum's funeral.

He didn't blame Boris Johnson, and would still vote Tory, but it clearly had a huge impact.

His wife, also a member for more than two decades said that if the Tory candidate Helen Hurford lost this seat, "that would say it all really", insisting that the PM can never fully get away from partygate.

And that’s why senior Tories who’ve been doorstepping admit privately that it felt at times to be “all about Boris” with voters saying they would come back to the party in the future.

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Still, even with explanation, the loss is so huge it is hard to get your head round, not least in a Brexit supporting constituency. Tories point out Neil Parish having to leave in scandalous circumstances. I am sure that didn't help, but from what I've heard here, he was really popular and the most people seem to say negatively is that he was really stupid to do what he did. As for Brexit - it is that leave support - that has led YouGov's Patrick English to describe the Tory seats in the south-west not as "blue wall" but something different - he has gone for "Celtic fringe". He says the blue wall is really the area around London, where commuter style seats have remainers and graduates, who are shifting from the Tories.

As well as the Brexit divide, the Celtic fringe is much more rural, he points out.

That it has swung so heavily from the Tories to a party that did campaign to re-enter the EU, shows how far voters appear to have come beyond Brexit.

And English says it is a region-wide problem, saying that on current polls in the south west the Tories could go from 41 to 26 seats - with cabinet secretaries, George Eustice and Jacob Rees Mogg at risk. When you add in Wakefield and a significant loss to Labour in the red wall it has been a bad night for the Conservatives. But always important to include the caveat. It is true, of course, that mid-term by-elections are bad for governments.

And while Tiverton breaks records as the biggest majority ever overturned in a by-election, satisfaction ratings for prime ministers do always slump at this stage of the political cycle.

Boris Johnson may be at -36, but Margaret Thatcher fell to -33 and David Cameron to -30 before both recovering enough to win another majority.