There may well be more to come. Sunak seems to prefer the ‘how to eat an elephant’ approach to losing his parliamentary majority over the ‘ripping off the plaster by calling a general election’ approach that everybody else wants.
So far, the story of the Wellingborough by-election has followed a now well-established narrative arc. Conservative MP is found guilty of something sleazy (and yes, it is more often than not a Conservative MP), Conservative MP protests their innocence and vows to fight on, Conservative MP eventually resigns (or is thrown out) and a by-election is announced.
The Conservative MP in this particular narrative is Peter Bone and rather than walking calmly down parliament’s off ramp, he has had to be chivvied along it using a mixture of dangling carrot and constitutional stick.
Mr Peter Bone
Bone was elected in 2005. His near 20-year incumbency and the fact that Wellingborough voted 62/38 to leave the EU in 2016 gives the constituency the feel of one of those ‘stick a blue rosette on a donkey and it will win’ places. Places that used to be impregnable Tory fortresses until Boris Johnson and Liz Truss took the Tory brand and smashed it to dust against the towering edifices of their ambition. In normal times, this by-election would be a pleasant stroll in the park for the incumbent party.
Bone himself has done little to inspire loyalty in the electorate, even before his recent disgrace. For ten crazy weeks in 2022, he rose to the heady heights of Deputy Leader of the House of Commons. But that happened at the fag end of an extraordinary 48 hours during which the drowning Boris Johnson lost 179 members of his government.
Frankly, if an MP can’t manage to snaffle a governmental post under those conditions, their constituents have every right to ask them what on earth they’ve been doing with their time. Beyond that, Bone has rarely troubled the scorers. In retrospect, his defence of his colleague, Christopher ‘Upskirting’ Chope, in 2018 is perhaps worthy of rather more notice than it attracted at the time.
Because it turns out that Bone is not averse to a bit of sexual impropriety.
Last autumn, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards upheld several allegations against Bone by a male member of his staff – five of bullying and harassment, and one of sexual misconduct.
The MP denied all wrong-doing and appealed against the investigation, calling it flawed and unfair. His appeal failed and on October 16, the Independent Expert Panel recommended that Bone be suspended from the House of Commons for six weeks. The following day, the Conservative party withdrew the whip and the suspension was formally voted through two weeks later. But Bone continued sitting as an independent MP.
The stick and the carrot
The six-week suspension provided the stick with which to start prodding Bone out of parliament for good. The recall petition triggered by the suspension was signed by 13% of the constituency’s electorate. The result meant that Bone was no longer an MP and a by-election would take place.
But still he showed no signs of being ready to quit parliament. The Sunday Times reported that, according to senior Conservative party sources, the MP had threatened to stand as an independent in any by-election, potentially splitting the Conservative vote and handing the constituency to the opposition on a plate.
Could a juicy carrot tempt Bone further along the off ramp? Not just any old carrot but one in the form of his girlfriend. The same Sunday Times article records that Bone offered to resign if his partner, Helen Harrison, was put on the party’s shortlist of candidates. Bone denies making any such offer while Harrison says that “people in the party” guaranteed her a place on the short list if her 71-year old boyfriend resigned before the recall petition even opened.
So we can’t be sure exactly who was waving root vegetables around but this much we do know: the recall petition garnered enough signatures to force a by-election, Helen Harrison is the Conservative candidate for that by-election and Peter Bone himself is not standing. It looks as if he has finally reached the end of the ramp.
Runners and riders
The Wellingborough by-election would normally be regarded as a nice bit of light campaigning for Helen Harrison, culminating in her inevitable victory. But these are far from normal times.
Apart from the intimate partner of the disgraced ex-MP, who else is standing? A full slate of candidates is available to the electorate, including four independents, somebody from Britain First and, of course, Nick, the Flying Brick from the Official Monster Raving Loony Party. But really, the only game in town is the three-way fight between the Conservatives, Labour and Reform UK.
BetFred currently has Labour candidate, Gen Kitchen, as favourite to win on extremely short odds of 1/7 against. This is astonishing when you consider that Bone’s majority was more than 18,000 and the seat was being reported as “relatively safe” as recently as six weeks ago.
However, there is feverish speculation that this by-election may finally see Reform kick their habit of performing poorly in real elections despite impressive polling (which has seen them reach double digits in several recent surveys). The party has put up no less than deputy leader, Ben Habib and there are whispers that the former MEP might even push Harrison into third place.
Febrile times indeed.