Boris Johnson won some respite from his recent political woes on Friday as the Conservatives held on to the safe London seat of Old Bexley and Sidcup in a by-election but the Tory majority was slashed to under 5,000.
Labour finished second, with its vote share up by 7.4 per cent, but very low turnout suggested that Sir Keir Starmer has yet to convince voters that he offered an attractive alternative to Johnson.
The Conservative victory in the Kent commuterlands, which voted heavily for Brexit in 2016, was of little surprise. The seat, once represented by former prime minister Edward Heath, has been in the party’s hands for 75 years.
But Tory strategists had eyed the contest, caused by the death from cancer of former MP James Brokenshire, with some concern after the party’s recent slump in fortunes.
Johnson has been under fire for his recent handling of a parliamentary sleaze scandal, while voters have been hit by rising shop prices, soaring energy bills and tax increases. His approval ratings have dropped sharply.
Conservative councillor Louie French won the seat with more than half of the vote, but with the low turnout, the Tories’ majority was slashed from almost 19,000 to 4,478.
After the declaration early on Friday, French paid tribute to his friend Brokenshire, saying the by-election had been tough but “fought with dignity”.
But the contest failed to come alight, with Labour unable to take maximum advantage of Johnson’s recent problems. Voter turnout was just 34 per cent, down from almost 70 per cent at the 2019 election.
The 10 per cent swing to Labour spoke to Starmer’s problems establishing himself with apathetic or angry Tory voters as a viable recourse from Johnson.
In his acceptance speech, French said he would “work tirelessly to repay the trust that you’ve placed in me and I will not let you down”.
French won 11,189 votes, beating into second place Labour’s Daniel Francis, who got 6,711. Tory vote share was down 13 per cent, while Labour was up 7.4 per cent.
Richard Tice, who stood for Reform UK, secured a vote share of 6.5 per cent, ahead of the Greens and Liberal Democrats. His populist party, the successor to the Brexit party, has campaigned against Covid-19 lockdowns.
The Greens finished fourth with 3.8 per cent, and the Lib Dems came fifth at 3 per cent.
French called his election to parliament “the greatest honour of my life”, but the decision of many former Tory voters to stay at home will cause some concern for Johnson.
The Conservatives are likely to face a tougher fight in another by-election in North Shropshire on December 16, caused by the resignation in a sleaze scandal by former Tory minister Owen Paterson.
The Lib Dems are expected to be the main challengers in that seat, as Labour has decided to fight only a modest campaign in spite of finishing second at the 2019 election.