If Rishi Sunak wasn’t aware of the scale of the challenge he faces in trying to turn around the Tories’ fortunes, he certainly does now.
The prime minister woke up this morning to the not-wholly-unexpected news that Labour had easily won the Chester by-election.
But it was the scale of the victory which will give Sunak – and virtually every Tory MP in the country – pause for thought.
Labour’s Samantha Dixon claimed the seat with a majority of nearly 11,000, well up on the 6,164 margin that former MP Chris Matheson won it by in 2019.
The party’s share of the vote also went up from just under 50% to 61%, while the Tories’ slumped from 38% to just 22%.
The result was all the more remarkable when you consider that the seat was still held by the Conservatives as recently as 2015.
If the 13% Tory-to-Labour swing was replicated at the next election, it would be enough to hand Keir Starmer the keys to Number 10 with a comfortable majority.
Unsurprisingly, Labour figures were delighted with the outcome.
“We’ve clearly won over lots of direct switching Tories in the suburbs which is the most important thing,” said one source.
“It shows the national polling is basically right. And, whichever way you cut it, that is brilliant for us.”
Another senior inside told HuffPost UK: “We were expected to do well, but we exceeded all expectations by a considerable mark.
“It could have been tricky, but we had a very good candidate and they ran a good campaign. It’s a good result but there’s still a long way to go and the big test is the general election.”
Lord Hayward, the Tory peer and polling expert, said Labour were right to be pleased – but cautious – in light of the result.
He told Sky News: “Labour have to be pleased, they’ve got over 60%, the swing was over 13% – it’s good for the Labour Party, no question about it.
“But the Conservatives will be relieved they got over 20% – there’s a psychological thing there – and it’s not quite as bad as the opinion polls have been suggesting.”
But he added: “All Tory MPs will be looking at this result and be concerned – there’s no question about it.”
One of those MPs took some positives from the result, telling HuffPost UK: “It’s a seat that’s been trending away from us. Normally you’d expect an opposition to outperform national polls in by-elections and they haven’t really.
“I think it shows the Labour lead is soft, there’s no love for Starmer, and that we can still recover by the next election. It’s not the sort of swing Blair or even Kinnock was getting.”
But it is Sunak, rather than Starmer, who has most to chew on as he tries to plot a course towards the next election.
“Let’s be honest, we were always going to win this seat, but the fact Sunak just isn’t registering in any way is incredible really,” said one Starmer ally.
Referring to the PM’s attack on Labour’s plan to make private schools pay VAT, the source added: “The most passionate I’ve ever seen Sunak was defending Winchester College’s tax breaks.”
“The most passionate I’ve ever seen Sunak was defending Winchester College’s tax breaks”
But Lord Hayward insisted there was some cause for optimism within 10 Downing Street, and that a Labour victory at the next election is not a foregone conclusion.
″[The Tories] have a real challenge on their hands, but having said that, Rishi comes across to the public at large as managerial,” he said.
“His ratings are well ahead of the Tory Party’s and are on a par with Keir Starmer, so he is showing that there is potential.”
Many more results like last night’s, however, and even more Conservative MPs will be seeking alternative employment before voters next go to the polls.