Disgraced ex-MP Chris Pincher was urged by Tory high command to “help the prime minister” by quitting parliament now so the by-election in his Tamworth constituency could be held on the same day as the Mid Bedfordshire poll.
After Mr Pincher formally resigned as an MP following his failed appeal against an eight-week Commons suspension for drunken “groping”, senior Conservative MPs told Sky News they expected the by-election for his seat to take place on 19 October.
That means voters in Tamworth – where Mr Pincher had a 19,634 majority over Labour in 2019 – will go the polls on the same day as those in Mid Beds, where the Tories will defend a 24,664 majority won by Nadine Dorries at the last election.
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“That was the plan,” a senior Conservative MP with knowledge of the by-election process told Sky News. “It makes sense to hold both these difficult by-elections on the same day.
“It was pointed out to Chris that as a former deputy chief whip, he would appreciate that it would help the prime minister if he would go now and not prolong the agony by going through a recall petition, which he had no chance of winning, and land us with another by-election further down the road.”
A senior government minister also told Sky News: “We expect Tamworth to be held on 19 October. As the prime minister has said, mid-term by-elections for incumbent governments are always difficult.”
Top Tories, including chief whip Simon Hart and party chairman Greg Hands, wanted both by-elections to be held with a decent interval after the party’s conference – taking place between 1 and 4 October – and to stretch the resources of their Labour and Liberal Democrat opponents.
It’s thought the Conservatives also want to get both polls out of the way quickly because they’re not confident of winning either, given the perception of sleaze that Mr Pincher and Ms Dorries have created for the party and the embattled Rishi Sunak.
Tamworth has been described by political guru Professor Sir John Curtice as a “totemic target” for Labour. That’s because a year before Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide, the party won a spectacular by-election victory in the seat when it was called South East Staffordshire.
The swing then was 22% and this time, a year before an election expected next autumn, Labour needs a 21% swing to win the seat.
It’s a big ask – although in July, Labour achieved a 23.7% swing in Selby and Ainsty, where it only needed an 18% swing for victory.
The Tamworth poll comes after Mr Pincher lost his appeal against a ruling by the Standards Committee of MPs that he “groped” two people at the Tory “holy of holies”, the Carlton Club, on 29 June last year, and was therefore guilty of an abuse of power.
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His appeal against the eight-week suspension, which he claimed was “disproportionate”, was rejected by an independent expert panel, meaning he would have faced a recall petition in his constituency, requiring only 10% of voters to call for him to go.
“We consider that the appellant’s arguments are misconceived or erroneous,” the panel concluded as it upheld the Standards Committee’s recommendation. “The sanction is far from being arbitrary or disproportionate.”
The Pincher scandal was one of the “three Ps” that brought down Boris Johnson – the other two being (Owen) Paterson and partygate. Mr Johnson was also said to have remarked to Tory colleagues: “Pincher by name, pincher by nature.”
That was in 2020, after former Olympic rower Alex Story claimed in 2017 that Mr Pincher made an unwanted pass at him when he was a 26-year-old Tory activist back in 2001 “like a pound shop Harvey Weinstein”.
That claim led Mr Pincher to resign as a junior government whip, though he was cleared of wrongdoing by a party investigation. He later served as Europe minister and housing minister.
But given the embarrassment Mr Pincher has caused the Conservative Party, it’s no wonder Tory MPs believe the least he could now was to help the prime minster out.