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 from lung cancer.
After a relatively short campaign, French won 11,189 votes – ahead of the closest challenger, Labour’s Daniel Francis, who got 6,711.
The Tories’ majority in the 2019 general election of nearly 19,000 was cut to 4,478 – but given turnout was deemed to be low, at 34%, the vote share will be pored over more closely. There was a 10.3% swing to Labour.
The Conservative party chair, Oliver Dowden, acknowledged that some voters may have been swayed by recent allegations of sleaze. He told Sky News: “Of course, people have concerns mid-term with any government’s performance. And, of course, people have been concerned about what’s happened over the past couple of months.”
But he called the outcome “a good result for a governing party mid-term”.
He added: “This idea that Labour have made some surge ahead is really for the birds. They’ve actually got about the same vote share as they secured under Jeremy Corbyn in 2017. Keir Starmer couldn’t even be bothered to turn up to the byelection, so I am really not terribly worried about Labour.”
Votes for the Conservative candidate were down 13.06% from the last election, while Labour’s share rose 7.4%. Richard Tice, who stood for Reform UK, secured a first-time vote share of 6.59%.
French paid tribute to his “good friend” Brokenshire and in a victory speech after the count said it was a “huge honour” to wear his former colleague’s blue rosette.
It was a “tough contest … fought with dignity and respect,” French 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.
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”.
Francis told the Guardian after the result that if there were a similar rise in Labour’s share of the vote at a general election, “a very large number of Conservative MPs would be losing their seats”. He added: “We’re on a path back to government.”
Voters began to mention more towards the end of the campaign “the sleaze that surrounds the prime minister and his competence”, 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 the former Tory prime minister Ted Heath in the 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 the 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 Johnson romped to victory in the 2019 general election.
Labour insiders had talked 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%, but failed to do so and effectively conceded within minutes of the count getting under way.
Ellie Reeves, the shadow solicitor general and MP for Lewisham West and Penge, said after the result: “Boris Johnson’s incompetence and broken promises have come into sharp focus in a staunch Conservative area.
“This result that should worry the prime minister. A swing of 10.3% in a Tory stronghold, carried across the country in a general election, would have Labour within reach of a majority government.”
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 2021.
Old Bexley and Sidcup has been held by the Conservatives since its creation
The result in Old Bexley and Sidcup will ease immediate pressure on 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 disgraced 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 MP 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.