UK's Conservatives retain seat in Bexley by-election despite ‘sleaze’ scandal

Vote was a stern test for Boris Johnson's party after a tumultuous few months

Conservative candidate Louie French celebrates victory in the Old Bexley and Sidcup by-election in Kent. Mr French won the special election,which was held to replace former MP James Brokenshire, who died in October. AP

Britain’s ruling Conservative Party has retained its hold on the Old Bexley and Sidcup seat in a by-election but with a reduced majority after a testing few months for Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The party’s grip on the traditionally safe suburban London seat was loosened to give them a majority of only 4,478 as voter turnout slumped to 34 per cent – down from 70 per cent in the 2019 general election.

The special election was prompted by the death of former Conservative cabinet minister James Brokenshire, who won with an 18,952 majority in 2019.

The Tories' Louie French won 51 per cent of the vote in Old Bexley, with the party's share down from 65 per cent in 2019. That compared to 31 per cent for Labour, up from 24 per cent. Reform UK, formerly known as the Brexit Party, came third with a first-time vote share of 7 per cent.

The low turnout suggested that many voters are becoming disillusioned with the prime minister, who has endured a turbulent few months.

However, the results suggested Tory voters are not changing allegiance to support Sir Keir Starmer’s opposition Labour Party, which came second in the contest.

Boris Johnson has endured a rocky few months. Reuters

The Prime Minister’s personal approval rating has plummeted after a series of mishaps and Tory rebellions on some government policies and his party is now neck-and-neck with the opposition in national opinion polls.

Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden called it a “good result for a governing party mid-term”.

Questioned about how allegations of “sleaze” within the party have affected the way in which voters perceive the Tories, Mr Dowden acknowledged the public concern.

A recent failed attempt to save former Tory MP Owen Paterson from suspension prompted allegations of corruption and “sleaze”.

“Of course people have been concerned over what’s happened over the past couple of months,” Mr Dowden told Sky News. “But I actually think it’s a tribute, contrary to a lot of expectations, to the campaign that has been fought by Louie French, by the excellent team down there, that we secured 50 per cent of the vote.

“Now, what I take from that is the government has to focus and get on with delivery.”

He referred to the government’s Nationality and Borders Bill, which is making its way through Parliament to stop people using illegal routes to migrate to the UK.

Reports suggest prominent party donors are fed up with the government’s approach to migration and want to see Home Secretary Priti Patel take tougher action to stem the flow of boats across the Channel.

Mr Dowden dismissed the gains made by the opposition. “This idea that Labour made some surge ahead is for the birds," he said.

“They actually got about the same vote share as they secured under Jeremy Corbyn in 2017 and Keir Starmer couldn’t even be bothered to turn up to the by-election. So I’m really not terribly worried about Labour.”

The Conservatives said Louie French’s victory was “almost unheard of” for a sitting government.

“For a government to get over 50 per cent of the vote in a parliamentary by-election is almost unheard of,” Conservative party deputy chairman Justin Tomlinson told the PA news agency. He said the vote showed Labour “do not look like a government in waiting”.

Labour MP Ellie Reeves said the 10 per cent swing to Labour showed that “even for Tory heartland voters, Boris Johnson’s jokes aren’t funny any more.”

Updated: December 3rd 2021, 9:29 AM