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Never mind Uxbridge. The Tory hate mob is still preparing for life after Sunak

It is not just the electorate that has had enough of Rishi Sunak – the vultures are circling around the prime minister from the right flank of his own party

Photo: Kristian Buus/In Pictures

Diehard Boris Johnson fans continue to laud him as a remarkable election winner, but his 2019 victory owed more to Jeremy Corbyn than the appeal of the man who sees himself as such a historic hero that he has given his newborn son, believed to be his eighth child, the name Odysseus. The majority of voters were not, as he and his supporters like to believe, in thrall to the dubious charms of the then Tory leader, they were just sure they did not want to live under a Corbyn administration.

What this week’s trio of byelections clearly demonstrate is that the electorate has, in very large numbers, had enough of this government. Some Conservatives might have already been admitting defeat in advance while secretly harbouring hopes that the results may not be a total rout, but the overwhelming consensus that the results would show a huge swing against the government has been vindicated. It took a record-breaking turnaround to hand Selby and Ainsty its first Labour MP, but this is where the Tories now are.

Somerset and Frome embraced its West Country Liberal Democrat leanings and delivered a massive thumbs-down to the party that provided them with an MP who admits allegations of cocaine use but continues to deny charges of sexual harassment.

Ironically, it was Johnson’s own former constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip that allows Rishi Sunak to avoid total wipeout, but not for any sentimental attachment to the party of its former member. Voter disquiet over the mayor of London’s Ultra-low emissions (ULEZ) policy, an unwanted expense for many motor commuters from the area, played badly for the Labour candidate.

Trying to portray this as a positive, as Conservative chairman Greg Hands had to on Friday morning, smacked of desperation, which it was. Uxbridge, though, could have devastating consequences. Today’s Tories do not embrace the green agenda with the same enthusiasm as the Cameroons did. Uxbridge could persuade the party to further dilute the commitment to net zero in pursuit of votes.

Sir Keir Starmer is a steadfast subscriber to the view that elections are lost rather than won, hence his determined stance to offend as few people as possible in the run-up to the election. Frustrating though many find it as they crave a glimpse of “the vision thing”, it is a valid strategy. He has certainly managed to bring a sense of discipline to his party, which is in stark contrast to the Conservatives, where the factions are playing to the spotlights.

The ghastly Illegal Migration bill, beloved of the far right, temporarily galvanised the moderate Tories. A furious Theresa May, denouncing the bill in parliament, was an impressive spectacle. In the Lords, too, many Tories cannot bring themselves to support the legislation in early rounds of ‘ping pong’. But on Monday night vicious whipping delivered success and the bill passed. Maybe Tory waverers took comfort from the assurances of Home Office minister, Lord Murray of Bildworth, that the government did not intend to lock up children indefinitely, it merely sought the powers to be able to do so. That is now has.

The government’s determination to push the bill through before the by-elections indicates a belief that such inhumane sentiments might curry favour with their core voters. That may be correct, but what Thursday’s votes show is how small that core has become.

This has the whiff of a dying administration, although it might hope to cling on for another year. Originally, it seemed Rishi Sunak and his colleagues really believed that if they could last until then, the economy would be looking brighter and the electorate would decide to stick with the incumbents. Well, there can no longer be any such illusions. The only thing growing in the economy is the scale of the debt.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the price of food and non-alcoholic drink rose by nearly 19% in the year to May. Inflation may have slowed slightly but remain high and mortgage costs have multiplied. The ONS paints a bleak picture of a third of households worried about how to cope and a fifth regularly running out of food.

A corrupt, incompetent government deserves to get sacked, but one presiding over a bombed-out economy certainly will be. The right of the Conservative Party is already preparing for that. Liz Truss, who seems to have no concept of shame, has gathered an unsavoury collection of free-trade extremists and wealthy US climate-change deniers to build on her policies, which failed so spectacularly just months ago.

Others, such as Suella Braverman and Lee Anderson, are gathering under the banner of New Conservatives to espouse ideals that are on the right of the right, and which are gaining adherents in so many parts of the world. The Conservative Party on the ground got there before them: constituency organisations have already welcomed in former members of Ukip and ushered out the moderates.

While they get on with indulging their dangerous games, Starmer seems on track to find himself in charge of a country with deep-seated problems that have built up over decades and will take decades to put right. The failure to invest in infrastructure, to totally modernise the NHS, to better educate and skill the workforce, and to eradicate poverty has been exacerbated by the appalling misjudgment of Brexit. And the problem for Starmer is that these problems would take years to settle even against the background of a strong economy.

The risk for him, and the country, is that after one term of Labour government the public feels no better off and, potentially, worse. In search of solutions, it will turn to the peddlers of false hopes and real hatred. That is the game plan of the New Conservatives.

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