Conservative MPs have blamed Matt Hancock’s affair for the party’s loss of the Batley and Spen by-election, after Labour’s Kim Leadbeater pipped the Tories by 323 votes to win on Friday.
Amanda Milling, the party’s co-chairman, said footage of Mr Hancock breaching Covid rules by kissing a married aide "was something that came up on the doorstep" in Batley, suggesting that Tory voters could have defected to Labour over the incident.
Labour sources in Ms Leadbeater’s campaign said the party had seen surprising levels of support in the constituency’s traditionally Conservative areas, such as in the villages of the Spen Valley, while the party was campaigning in the week after the affair was revealed.
Photos of Mr Hancock and Gina Coladangelo kissing were published last Friday, ahead of polling day on July 1. The former health secretary resigned on Saturday evening.
"It was something that came up on the doorstep, I have to be honest about that," Ms Milling said.
"We had some issues over the weekend in terms of what happened," she added. "Matt resigned, that was the right thing to do. But governing parties don’t gain by-elections."
Sir Keir Starmer and Kim Leadbeater celebrate victory outside the campaign centre in Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire, on Friday morning
Credit: Oli Scarff
Ms Milling insisted there was "a lot of love for the Prime Minister", but refused to get into the details of what issues came up or whether people were critical of Boris Johnson for not sacking his health secretary.
The Tory chairman’s willingness to admit Mr Hancock’s affair was mentioned by voters suggests that the blame game over Batley and Spen has already begun in Conservative campaign HQ.
One Conservative MP who visited the constituency this week said a backlash to Mr Hancock’s affair and resignation was evident among some voters before the by-election.
The MP quoted a female voter in her forties who brought up the incident while the politician was handing out leaflets after the scandal broke.
“One person raised it with me on the doorstep. They said ‘how dare they say he’ll be back in public life soon.’ It seemed to really rile people,” the MP told The Telegraph.
“It’s the kind of thing people say in Westminster, but not elsewhere in the country. All that did is play into a wider ‘born to rule’ narrative.”
The Tory MP noted Mr Johnson told Mr Hancock in a letter acknowledging his resignation that "your contribution to public service is far from over", a hint of a possible future return to the front bench.
A second Tory MP who campaigned in the constituency said that a voter had brought up Mr Hancock’s affair with them, but stressed other issues were bigger factors in the defeat.
They named Labour’s historic hold on the seat – the party has held the constituency for around a quarter of a century – and the fact the Tories have been in Government for 11 years as key to the narrow loss.
Batley and Spen result embed
Lord Mandelson also suggested the Hancock factor played a role in Labour clinging on during an interview on Friday morning on Sky News.
"Inevitably it was brought up on the doorstep. It was a colossal piece of hypocrisy by Matt Hancock," he said.
“It was a colossal piece of hypocrisy by Matt Hancock.”
Former Labour communications director, Lord Mandelson says there is a “real arrogance” with the Prime Minister and his handling of the former health secretary’s behaviour. #KayBurley: https://t.co/S7PVAdsE6E pic.twitter.com/pmU6RomLoZ
— Sky News (@SkyNews) July 2, 2021
But one Labour MP who campaigned in Batley suggested that the Hancock scandal was not the reason for his party’s success.
The MP said the seat had been returned to "the status quo" after Mr Hancock’s resignation.
"Ironically, if Hancock had survived, it could have been quite a different situation because people are quite angry about how the Government has dealt with it," he said.
Ms Milling on Friday insisted that the victory in Batley and Spen was not a “great result” for Labour either.
"Each by-election has its own unique challenge. It was disappointing to lose Chesham and Amersham, but this is not a great win for the Labour Party… they only won by a matter of 300 votes,” she said.
"I am really disappointed, particularly disappointed for Ryan, but at the end of the day it wasn’t a great result for Labour."