Wakefield by-election: Why defeat might not spell disaster for Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson in Rwanda
The Prime Minister spent by-election day in Rwanda. Credit: PA
  • ITV Calendar's political correspondent Harry Horton says the Prime Minister is unlikely to face major repercussions if the Conservatives lose.

Labour are widely expected to win the Wakefield by-election. But both Labour and Conservative sources have stressed that they think the result will be tighter than some expect.

Two major polls during the campaign showed Labour with a strong, double-digit lead. Few expect to see that kind of result when the ballots have been counted.

The former Conservative MP Imran Ahmad Khan won by a margin of just over 3,000 votes in 2019. It was the biggest majority in the seat since 2005. So Wakefield has a history of close results.

Keir Starmer used PMQs to have a jibe at the Conservative candidate in Wakefield. Credit: PA

Earlier this week, in a sign of his party’s growing confidence about winning back Wakefield, Labour Leader Keir Starmer used his first question at PMQ’s to mock a vote of no confidence held last year by Wakefield Conservative councillors in their group leader – and now parliamentary candidate – Nadeem Ahmed.

The final two weeks of campaigning haven’t been smooth for Mr Ahmed. First, he was forced to apologise over comments he made to ITV Calendar and The Daily Telegraph about Harold Shipman.

And second, he wasn't able to secure a visit from Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. Whether that was for purely logistical reasons or because Downing Street has written off the seat we’ll perhaps never know. 

Nadeem Ahmed speaks to Harry Horton. Credit: ITV News

Either way, the PM spent by-election day thousands of miles away from Wakefield in Rwanda, where a summit of Commonwealth leaders was being held.

Curiously, Mr Johnson’s Twitter account this week posted an endorsement of the Conservative candidate in Tiverton and Honiton – where a by-election is also taking place – but posted nothing about Wakefield.

But despite some positive signs, Labour are worried a low turnout and large field of candidates could cause them some problems.

Labour are desperate for a big win in Wakefield to prove the party can win back voters in the so-called "red wall". Earlier this year, one Labour MP told me the party had to win in Wakefield by at least 6,000 votes.

A narrow win would be bittersweet for Labour. Credit: PA

A win in the low thousands would be bittersweet for Labour and suggest the party still has a lot of work to do to win back seats in Yorkshire. A defeat for Labour would be a disaster for the party and put real pressure on Keir Starmer’s leadership.

Simon Lightwood, the Labour candidate, tested positive for Covid recently and spent some time isolating at home. I’m told he’s now tested negative for two days and has been back out campaigning.

Conservative ministers have spent weeks pre-emptively giving excuses about why the party might lose Wakefield – so much so that Boris Johnson is unlikely to face any major repercussions after a defeat.

But speak to some Tories campaigning here in Wakefield and they will quietly admit they believe there’s an outside chance they could snatch a win.