Boris Johnson is still invincible. Or so some Tories think.
The Conservatives’ grip on Old Bexley and Sidcup will be used as evidence by the prime minister’s supporters that he is untainted by opposition attacks of corruption and incompetence.
Some in the party will even say that if voters think these things about him, they are not bothered enough to punish him at the ballot box that it presents a real threat to his (and their) electoral success.
So first, the good news for Johnson. Holding a seat – admittedly one that has been blue since 1950 – so strongly at a byelection after the governing party has been in power for 11 years is certainly an achievement.
However the poor turnout (just 34%) suggests the Conservatives had trouble mobilising their voters.
Partly this was because the byelection was held during the winter, and because the previous race was far from tight, meaning the result this time felt to many like a foregone conclusion.
But Tory canvassers whose job it was to “get out the vote” on Thursday confessed they heard complaints from disaffected Conservative supporters, many of whom criticised Johnson’s leadership skills and professionalism.
A familiar story related by one Tory councillor who went doorknocking in the area went: “The reports our voters have weak motivation, and [are] disaffected with Boris, have been borne out in my conversations with residents.”
But now the votes have been tallied, it is clear to see the seat was always very unlikely to change hands.
Looking at its demographic, the proportion of people aged over 65 is 19.2% based on the last census data, well above the London average (12.2%). When it comes to housing, 79.8% of voters are property owners – again well above the London average of 48.3%. And the borough of Bexley voted strongly for Leave in the EU referendum, by 63%.
Older, Brexit-backing and home-owning voters are precisely those who the Conservatives targeted at the last election and expect to continue to support them.
But while Johnson is well known for his promise in 2019 to “get Brexit done”, voters in Old Bexley and Sidcup do not seem sold yet that the government is delivering for them in other areas.
During the campaign, some brought up Johnson’s widely panned speech to business leaders that meandered into Peppa Pig World; the party held in No 10 attended by Johnson during the second lockdown; and broader frustration that he needed to sharpen up his act.
What may not worry some Conservatives – but should – is that these voters lamented the lack of an effective opposition.
Keir Starmer was said by some observers of the campaign to have been invisible during the byelection, and the Labour leader even spent polling day in Yorkshire.
If Labour’s gradual recovery in the national polls continues, and a tricky winter of further Covid uncertainty, sleaze investigations rumbling on and unforced errors continues, some Tories may stop just voting for Johnson because they feel there is no alternative.
Instead, they may be driven further away from the Conservatives, and into the hands of other right-leaning parties like Reform UK. Or, if Starmer can present himself as a solutions man capable of taking on the mantle of prime minister, for Labour instead.
Johnson would be wise not to take the result for granted.