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The Observer View On This Week’s Byelections In Wakefield And Tiverton And Honiton | Observer Editorial

When Conservative MPs recently had the opportunity to evict a profoundly unpopular and deeply discredited prime minister who broke the law and then lied about it to parliament, they flunked the test. The 148 who did the right thing were outnumbered by the 211 placeholders, cronies and cynics who chose to keep him at No 10. In the fortnight since, we have been provided with an accumulation of further evidence that they were morally myopic and politically foolish to allow Boris Johnson to carry on squatting in the office he has so debased.

His lack of basic integrity has been underlined by the resignation of Christopher Geidt as his adviser on ministerial interests. Geidt is the second holder of the post to realise that trying to get this prime minister to follow rules on ethical behaviour is an impossibly oxymoronic challenge. It is a sign of how far expectations of decent conduct have collapsed during the Johnson regime that few are surprised to learn that he is considering dispensing with having an ethics invigilator at all. A prime minister who casually flouted his own Covid laws has also shown himself ready to consciously break international law by announcing legislation to unilaterally recast the Northern Ireland protocol. This defies the wishes of the majority of Northern Ireland’s elected representatives and seeks to undo the Brexit agreement that he negotiated and sold to the British people as “an oven-ready deal” at the 2019 election. Amid the gravest armed conflict on our continent since 1945 and the most severe squeeze on living standards in decades, a trade war with the European Union is the last thing this country needs. It will fuel inflation and make it even likelier that the UK slides into recession. And yet, with all too characteristic recklessness, this government is risking just that.

In its pursuit of an inhumane and expensive scheme of dubious legality to export asylum seekers to Rwanda, the government is squandering taxpayers’ money and Britain’s reputation with a grotesque gimmick rather than making an intelligent effort to address the challenges posed by migration. With the arrogant nastiness we have come to expect of this government, there are threats to try to kick the bishops out of the House of Lords for daring to condemn the Rwanda scheme as ungodly and unethical. A similar propensity to play squalid partisan politics with any issue has been displayed in ministers’ refusal to intervene to try to head off the crippling rail strikes that will be inflicted on Britain this week. It is hard to escape the suspicion that the government condemns these strikes while being secretly delighted to see the travel plans of millions thrown into chaos in the hope that the Tories can weaponise the disruption to wound the Labour party.

Labour’s Simon Lightwood can take back Wakefield from the Tories. Photograph: Ian Forsyth/Getty ImagesPollsters have long been unanimous in reporting that a substantial majority of the public want Johnson removed from office. Without a general election, the country has no mechanism for achieving this result.

Two groups of voters are in a more privileged position. They have been presented with the opportunity to send a message of rebuke to the Conservative party on behalf of the UK. On Thursday, there will be a byelection in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, and another in Tiverton and Honiton, in Devon. Both have been triggered by the resignation of disgraced Tory MPs. One was forced to quit after his conviction for sexually assaulting a teenage boy, the other after being caught watching pornography in the House of Commons. That conduct provides incentive for voters to express disgust with the Conservatives. The surest guarantee of defeating them is for all non-Tory voters to get behind the progressive party with the best chance of winning.

In Devon, that means voting for the Liberal Democrats. To win, they need to demolish a huge Conservative majority. They showed themselves capable of doing that before Christmas when they took North Shropshire. In the climactic days of campaigning, the Lib Dems will be flooding Tiverton and Honiton with hundreds of activists. The result could be close. Labour and Green supporters should recognise that a vote for their first preference will effectively be half a vote in favour of Johnson continuing in office. They should heed Ed Davey’s call to lend their votes to the Lib Dems to help “deliver the knock-out blow to Boris Johnson”. We urge supporters of other non-Tory parties to get behind the Lib Dem candidate to be sure the constituency issues the rebuke Conservative MPs so richly deserve.

Labour has high expectations of taking Wakefield, which it represented for decades before the last general election. We hope for better than a narrow Labour win. What is required is a stonking rejection of the Tories. In Wakefield, we want to see supporters of non-Tory parties make their votes as potent as possible. In this case, it means getting behind the Labour candidate.

There is no shame in tactical voting. For as long as political outcomes are distorted by an antique and unfair first-past-the-post electoral system, voting tactically is the only way to mobilise the anti-Tory majority. Keir Starmer and Davey have been encouraging tactical voting by sensibly focusing their parties’ energies where each is best placed to punish the Conservatives.

On Thursday, voters in two very different areas have the opportunity to speak for the country. A double whammy of byelection defeats will frighten Conservative MPs in red wall seats and those traditionally true blue. A scare, the bigger the better, is exactly what the Tories need before this government slithers into even worse degeneracy.

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