Rishi Sunak has launched two dangerous by-elections for Tory seats next month, but it remains to be seen when he can stage a third contest in former minister Nadine Dorries’ seat.
Sunak on Wednesday introduced the legal writs necessary to start the games to be held in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, the former seat of Boris Johnson, and Selby, the seat of Johnson’s ally Nigel Adams. Both formally retired as MPs this week.
But the Prime Minister is furious at Dorries’ refusal so far to honor her promise last Friday to step down immediately as MP for the Mid Bedfordshire seat.
Sunak wanted all three by-elections to be held on the same day – subtracting the political equivalent of a tie – so that the pain is allayed on the same night in July, before MPs leave for their summer holidays.
But Dorries, who blames Number 10 for blocking her nomination to the House of Lords on Johnson’s honor roll for dismissal, has told friends she wants Sunak to suffer.
“She wouldn’t mind ruining Rishi’s vacation,” a friend said, arguing that if Dorries doesn’t step down formally for a few weeks, the prime minister may have to hold a by-election in the summer or early fall.
“Rishi has not taken a vacation in three and a half years,” an ally of the prime minister replied. “He doesn’t care.” Another senior Tory official said: “He thinks the people of Mid Bedfordshire deserve good representation in this house.”
By-elections in Selby and Uxbridge are expected to take place on July 13 or 20. Both contests are problematic for Sunak, who is struggling to contain internal party squabbles and the fallout from rising mortgage rates.
Bookmakers make the Tories narrow favorites to win Selby in Yorkshire, where the party is defending a majority of 20,137, but Labor officials said they hoped the party could topple it.
However, Labor is overwhelming favourites to win Johnson’s old seat, which the former prime minister won in 2019 with a majority of 7,210.
A Mid Bedfordshire by-election cannot be launched until Dorries has taken the formal step of stepping down, which requires her to write Chancellor of the Exchequer in an antiquated parliamentary procedure.
Dorries has told friends she will formally step down at a time of her choosing, noting that a Labor MP, Rosie Cooper, took two months last year to implement her announced resignation.
Greg Hands, chairman of the Tory party, visited the Dorries constituency on Sunday and tried to appease relations.
“I pay tribute to Nadine,” he said. “She was an MP for 18 years and was elected with 60 percent of the vote last time. She has been a popular MP and has done a brilliant job of keeping kids safe with the online safety law and all that stuff.”
But relations between Dorries and Sunak are bad. The former culture secretary told Talk TV Sunak was a “privileged posh boy” who “cruelly” blocked her from a seat in the House of Lords.
Whenever a vote is taken, the Liberal Democrats are confident of winning the Mid Beds seat and are the bookmakers’ favourites, although Labor insists it will fight to win the seat, which was won by Dorries with a majority of 24,664 in the 2019 election.
Privately, Labor officials admit that if it becomes clear they cannot win in Mid Beds, they will “commit resources” to seats where they are more likely to beat the Tories.
Daisy Cooper, deputy leader of the Lib Dem, said: “This by-election will be a close race between the Liberal Democrats and an out-of-touch Conservative party.
“We’ve already heard from lifelong Conservative and Labor voters in Bedfordshire supporting the Liberal Democrats in sending a message to this government.”
Earlier, Labor discreetly stepped back in by-elections where the party had no chance of winning, allowing the Lib Dems to dominate the anti-Tory vote.
This unofficial non-aggression pact, reciprocated by the Lib Dems in seats targeted by Labour, helped the Center Party secure recent historic by-election victories against the Conservatives in North Shropshire, Chesham and Amersham, and Tiverton and Honiton.
Both sides deny any formal agreement, but “targeting resources” actually means they have election strategies designed to do as much damage as possible to Sunak’s party.
Conservatives believe they can hold out in Selby, but admit the contest “conditions” provoked by the departure of Johnson and his allies from the Commons will make it difficult to secure victory.
A senior party official said: “We are going to lose all three, there is no doubt about that.”